Deborah Levy and The Cost of Living

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read and very much enjoyed the first in Levy’s autobiographical triptych, I was really looking forward to delving into her second. I love Levy’s writing, both her works of imaginative fiction, but now, also her, more reflective work.

Levy, in The Cost of Living takes us on a journey of marital breakdown that, in my view, captured with almost tortuous accuracy, the toll of marital breakdown, and attempting to start your life again right at a time when society most expects you to have settled into it. It hurt to read at times. Some of it gave voice to my emotions, in words that I could never have found. Describing her marriage both as a boat, and a ghost that continued to haunt her, the duality of the metaphor permeates the entire book, so that we can almost see the wreckage of a ghost ship being tossed on an endless ocean, as she learns how to swim. She knows that the best thing she did was not to swim back to the boat after having abandoned it, but struggles with the next part of her journey – where she is to go now that she has finished being a wife.

The book becomes an autopsy of her marriage, as she starts to unpack why it was slowly strangling her. In doing so, issues of sex and gender-based roles become prominent. She visualises her family home, stripping it back, to expose, underneath the comfort and happiness of others, that there is a woman – ‘unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted.’ As the book progresses, she lays bare not only what it cost her to leave the marriage, but, more pertinently, what it would cost her to stay. In doing so, she returns to the ghosts that haunt her, one of them the spectre of femininity, which enforces a duty of cheerfulness, sacrifice, endurance, and suffering on the woman. You can feel her chafing against these gender norms as she struggles to unpick them. What is a woman for, she asks. What should a woman be? Take away the scaffolding of her marriage, and she is uncertain of all those things she had once found secure.

As Levy takes us, story by story, through that first year of leaving her marriage, we know she is trying to discover who she is now that she is not a wife, while at the same time, she tries to find a space in which she can write, an intrinsic component of her identity. She knows that writing is about stamina. So too, it would, appear, is finding yourself again from the shadows of expectation of others.

I know that there is a third book to conclude Levy’s autobiographical journey. Yet, so satisfying a read was the The Cost of Living that I am almost reluctant to continue on. For this book concludes with an author who would rather walk through shadows and darkness than reach for something she has already concluded is worthless. In finding herself, post-marital breakdown, she gives us this book. I can do nothing else but recommend that you read it.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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