Book Review – The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s poignant memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is an account of her experience dealing with grief during the first year following the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. John and Joan had been married nearly 40 years when he suffered a fatal heart attack one evening in their New York apartment. To make a tragic event more complicated, the couple had just returned home from a visit to the hospital where their only daughter was comatose after a struggle with pneumonia. Thus, the surreal experience of dealing with bereavement was compounded for Didion by worries about her daughter’s health, and the necessity of informing her of John’s passing when she eventually regained consciousness.

A celebrated writer and frequent collaborator with her husband, Didion rose to prominence writing for Vogue in the 1950s and 1960s, and then as a reporter recording the rise of the California counterculture movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Upon its release in 2004, The Year of Magical Thinking was widely praised and is considered a classic of grief literature, alongside C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (a book Didion references repeatedly in her own work).

Despite dealing with such weighty subject matter, the book is written with the same elegant style and detached precision that Didion’s journalism is known for. She is fascinated by the strange sorts of madness that can accompany grief – becoming obsessed with pinpointing the exact moment of John’s death so that she might know what she could have done to prevent it, searching her memories of their conversations and wondering whether he had any premonition of what was going to happen, and the ‘magical thinking’ she falls into when she finds herself unable to give his shoes away, because “how could he come back if he had no shoes?”.

She also notes the uncomfortable relationship modern society seems to have with the realities of death and the mourning process, and draws comfort from the “matter-of-fact wisdom” of a 1922 etiquette book. The book details the formal rituals and procedures that accompanied bereavement in a time when death was still largely “up close, at home”, rather than a matter for clinical settings.

Didion herself sadly passed away late last year, prompting a resurgence of interest in her work. A lifelong keen observer of human behaviour, she was just as adept at turning this focus on herself and her own experiences. Reading Didion’s work feels like being led calmly and competently through murky, complex questions – emerging not to any fixed answer, but to a more clear-eyed, perceptive understanding of the way we think and live.

Megan Koch

About the Author

Megan Koch

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University. She currently writes freelance exhibition, theatre, and arts reviews. Her work can be found on various platforms, including ArtsHub and Year13.

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