Australian / Book Reviews / nonfiction / The Latest

A Review of Tabitha Carvan’s “This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch”: unapologetically loving things

This article contains some affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I might make a small commission. These small commissions help me keep my blog afloat.

Buy your copy here.

I am currently watching Gilmore Girls for the who-knows-how-many-maybe-100th time. Before reading Tabitha Carvan’s book, I would never have wanted to admit that on my blog, and if I did happen to bring this up with someone, I would have found some way to apologise for it. As though watching the show for the 100th time is somehow wrong – my dirty little secret. But Carvan’s novel has emboldened me.

Since my brother died, not much in my life makes sense. I miss him more than I could ever say and I have never felt more alone in my life than now. He celebrated his 40th birthday in lockdown and it breaks my heart to know he didn’t get to celebrate with all the people he loved. We were separated by state border closures from the time he was diagnosed up until a month or so before he died. Even when I could see him, hospital restrictions were harsh. And I wish he could have been surrounded by all the people he loved, whenever he needed them to be there. He died on Christmas morning. And while I don’t think there is anything wrong with that – I know my brother wanted to fight and live more than anything else and I know it was simply his time to go – I do know that most people don’t want to make time or space for that kind of loss. Not on Christmas day… It might ruin the turkey roast. So even though death happens to all of us and to everyone we will ever know or love, it too feels like a dirty little secret.

So, I am huddled up in my home office (because the pandemic has made a lot of us live at our work now) watching Gilmore Girls and knitting a multi-coloured jumper because it is the only thing that makes sense to me most days. And while I wish I was thinking or doing something profound with this loss, I’m sitting on my office chair glued to my laptop screen riding the Jessie, Dean, or Logan train (you won’t get this if you’re not a fan of the show) for the umpteenth time. Carvan talks a lot about passion in her book, but also the need to sometimes love things for the sake of loving them; for doing things because of the simple joy and comfort it brings us. It all sounds so simple, and yet it isn’t quite so. Carvan quotes a blog post from a woman who had cancer, Elizabeth Caplice: “[…] watching The Hunger Games is meaningful because through doing this, i am taking my mind off things, or enjoying myself, or whatever it is we do when we watch trashy movies or TV that we like, and that this is ok. i don’t need to be in this mindful meditative zone where all i do is feel profound about my observations about life and death” (p.140-1). Never have there been truer words spoken. Sometimes trash TV is the only thing that can soothe us and that is fine.

Carvan’s book is about motherhood and the changes it brings with it. It is (despite what the title suggests) also a little about her love of Benedict Cumberbatch. And it is about losing yourself and then finding a way back to yourself by exploring and embracing the things that bring you joy.

I never knew Kierkegaard was funny, but I think this is funny: ‘The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed’. I did not notice. I would catch my reflection in the mirror in the bathroom, wher I went again and again to wash my hands after changing nappies. So used to gazing down at babies, I was shocked, every time, to discover there was another face up here. Our eyes would meet, and then I would finish drying my red, cracked hands and leave her behind, as if she were nothing at all. I guess it’s not that funny.

Carvan p.14-15

While I cannot speak to the experiences of motherhood, I do know that the loss of life, much like the creating of it, is a profound and life-altering experience. The person you were then, and the person you are now are not the same. But it isn’t like you have completely altered yourself. No. It is actually uncanny how you can still find your old self in the fragments of this new self – a twitch of an eyebrow, your hand as it stirs in the sugar of your tea – in those moments your new and old self collide and much like all those old ghost stories would have you believe, you feel a chill set across your skin.

I think selfhood is constantly changing and evolving and while there are things that can just happen in our lives that will change us in ways we didn’t expect. It doesn’t mean we don’t have agency over our lives. On the contrary, when life throws stuff at us, good and bad, we need to be looking at ourselves and asking:

And you? Where might you need to go? […] if a door presented itself, would you let yourself step through? And if you can’t even imagine that happening, if it seems like there’s nothing you love enough, or want enough, then don’t feel bad about it—you don’t need extra things to feel bad about. But if this is the case, then perhaps you could try looking back. Thnk about something you used to love.

Carvan p. 231

Buy your copy here.

If you’re feeling lost right now, wait out the storm someplace safe – I would suggest starting in a good book you’ve read so many times the cover is about to fall off, or a TV show that makes you feel alive and loved, or in a hobby you gave up because you got too busy. Take back that joy for yourself. As always, share the reading love.