The Next Chapter

If you liked The Year of Magical Thinking, you'll love...

Columnist Donna Bailey Nurse on why Nocturne by Helen Humphreys is a great Canadian pick for fans of Joan Didion's classic memoir.
The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse recommends a Canadian book for readers who love Didion's classic examination of grief and mourning. (Vintage/Phyllis Bruce Books)

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion's account of how she tried, and often failed, to start over after the death of her husband. The book was hailed as an instant classic, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2005 and was adapted into a stage play that opened on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave in the starring role. The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse reviews the book, and explains why Nocturne by Helen Humphreys is a wonderful Canadian option for fans of Didion's tale of grief and mourning.


If you think about Joan Didion's writing, you might want to say, "A life of magical writing." She's just this amazing, gorgeous writer who's able to communicate the finest nuance of thought into purest language. She has said that growing up she's always read and always written, and a lot of research always goes into it. If you read her essays, you can see how rigorous she is. She's always looking at the larger picture, and she looks at herself in order to comment on the wider world. She has such tremendous faith in the power of words, of the intellect, of thinking, and what happens in this book is that when she's grieving her husband, all these things begin to fail her.


Nocturne by Helen Humphreys is an account of the loss of Humphreys' brother. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2009, and was dead by December. It's very fast, but they do have some notice. Helen Humphreys and Joan Didion have the most incredible styles — different, but also very pure and honest. It's just that their writing takes them in opposite directions. It's not a contest, but I do feel that Helen Humphreys was more successful [at dealing with her loss through writing]. She has a very deep inclination toward the natural world. Joan Didion is so tenacious about the intellectual life — she's going to figure it out in her head or she's not going to figure it out at all. Helen Humphreys will let go of that — what she wants language to do is to move her out of the human sphere and closer to the natural. She writes about her observations in nature and how they help her through this difficult period.

Donna Bailey Nurse's comments have been edited and condensed.