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by Gwyneth Lewis
HarperCollins, 2002
Review by Sue Bond on Jul 2nd 2003

Sunbathing in the Rain

  This is a very likable book, one that would be comforting for many people with depressive illness. Gwyneth Lewis' main theme is the usefulness of depression in finding out what is wrong with your life and changing it accordingly. She uses her own autobiography, which includes her development as a published poet in Welsh and English, to make it a personal story of coping with depression.

  The book has an epigraph 'Do not be discouraged' and a frontispiece, very discouraging indeed, of Goya's 'Que Se La Llevaron' or 'They carried her off'. Throughout the book there are quotations and snippets from newspapers and books, some directly related to depression and some oblique references, and some simply quirky inclusions. The serious ones, such as from Simone Weil and Rainer Maria Rilke, are the most illustrative of what Lewis is trying to do, but some of the others are humorous and imaginative too.

  The author uses the conceit of a murder mystery to structure the chapters ('Previous Convictions', 'Identifying the Body'), but I found this a weak set of allusions, and one that sat oddly with the title. Her use of metaphor, and language generally however, is often very good: depression is an 'internal ice age', and there is 'permafrost around the heart'; a Zen retreat is like 'a homeopathic dose of death'; and writing about depression is like 'trying to nail down fog'.

  As mentioned, Lewis' point is clear: depression should be used as a teacher to show you how to live. She details the possible causes of her illness as being genetics, emotional habit and stressful life events, and illustrates these through the telling of her mother's depression (and her grandmother's), the effects this has on the family, and the significant moments in her own life history. She drank heavily during one period of her life, and describes its disastrous effects in detail painful and humiliating enough to put the reader off alcohol for good. She also describes how depression taught her when to slow down and reexamine what she was doing with her life, and how her thinking often exacerbated her low moods.

  Whenever she was neglecting her creative, poetic self, for example, or doing something which was not authentic to her own beliefs, she began to fall ill. Lewis describes in some detail her learning process with respect to her and her husband's choice about having, or not having, children. There is a telling section early in the book where she visits a farming friend, and takes on board the comment made about not giving the 'empty ewes', that is the non-pregnant ones, extra food. It has a profound effect on her, and is a factor in precipitating a bout of depression. She learned that she had to work through the grief that resulted from the choice that she and her husband made.

  There is a lot of good, sweet-natured humor, and comforting stories, but after a couple of hundred pages I felt that depression was almost being put forward as something to be enjoyed! Indeed, the author actually states this at one point towards the end. It is my major misgiving about this work that it is too optimistic about the benefits accrued from depressive illness. She doesn't write enough about suicidal ideation, and gives the impression that all you have to do is ride it through and your life will be repaired at the end.

  There are passages, granted, where she describes the painful aspects of her depression, and how it slowed her down to stillness so that all she could do was sleep for twenty-three hours in the day. She does also mention the need for a good doctor who will listen to you, and effective anti-depressant therapy.

  There are many good things in this book, and interesting ideas to think about. It is a worthwhile book for a writer to read, especially, as Lewis describes her own artistic journey as a poet, but the creative insights are applicable to a wide range of people with depressive illness.

 

 

© 2003 Sue Bond

 

 

Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland,  Australia.