The First Time I Thought I Was Dying (Sarah Walker, UQP)
This is an essay collection in which the most difficult and abject parts of being a human in a body are examined with full and unflinching frankness, from our unacknowledged mammalian motivations to the duties of art to elevate our understanding of ourselves. Sarah Walker is a gifted essayist and each piece is neatly compartmentalised with one or two stand-out themes, including consent, kindness, mental health, photo manipulation and body image, and phobias and triggers. The book contains a robust academic backbone of references, quotes and reflection, while the author’s multidisciplinary arts background emerges in the recounting of her time working in theatre and photography. The more personal memoir sections are polished and provocative. This is a contemporary book that touches on current events without seeming as though it will become dated, reminiscent of both Ellena Savage’s Blueberries and Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic with their references to trauma, the body and the meaning of beauty. The final essay in Walker’s collection, ‘Contested Breath’, held me transfixed as I made sense of the author’s grief and loss collapsing into the pandemic’s disarray. How to organise an ethical funeral knowing it might be cancelled? How to tell relatives that the cause of your mother’s death is another unknown? It is this difficult, messy, all-at-onceness that The First Time I Thought I was Dying lays out, in formidable and intimate detail.
Anne Barnetson is a bookseller and illustrator based in Perth.