Monday 8 April 2024

Review by Lee Wright of "The Observable Universe" by Heather McCalden

Following the death of both her parents from AIDS in the 1990s, Heather McCalden was left an orphan at the age ten, to be raised by her grandmother. Convinced she could solve the mystery of why this happened and who her father really was, she became consumed by thoughts of AIDS and the internet developing on parallel timelines – 1982 was the year the terms Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and Internet with a capital I were first used. 

Years of searching for deeper understanding eventually led her to becoming an artist and writer, clearly needing to fulfil a desire to create, and fill that part of her which life had destroyed. 

The publishing world isn't short on grief memoirs, but McCalden has been innovative with her subject, imparting historical knowledge and personal intimacy like spoonsful of cough syrup. The experience of reading The Observable Universe may sometimes taste bitter, but it is easily digestible. 

Viral infection and the internet are both constructed on shifting sands and so the author is constantly moving. The book feels like a Russian doll, or scrapbook. Or, as McCalden explains on the opening page: "This book is an album about grief. Every fragment is like a track on a record."

Every vignette, whether on Facebook, desire, curiosity, Netflix, human longing, Wikipedia, useless private detectives, or Holocaust deniers, carries with it both the serious and the satirical. The dormant menace of AIDS erupted around her as she grew up in Los Angeles, and then years later, another menace – that of a family secret - caused more heartache. 

McCalden’s thoughts are everywhere but given only in glimpses. There are also episodes of – whisper it – flash fiction, in the form of retold conversations in hotel bars or rent a car offices. Like a virus, there are many directions this memoir could go, and like the internet, you have to filter through the pages to get to the real story. 

About the reviewer
Lee Wright has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film. His fiction and poetry have been published with Fairlight Books, époque press and Burning House Press.

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