Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World

By all accounts a lovely woman, Terry Tempest Williams: I've taught her work before (an essay in the textbook/anthology Writing It Slant), I've been following her on Twitter for some time, and plenty of my eco friends are fans of her work.

So it's uncomfortable that I don't know what the hell to say or think about her recent book Finding Beauty in a Broken World. It hurt to read this book's content, and I can't make sense of its aesthetics. It has its fans and defenders, mind you, some of them people I've come to like and to trust, but I can't call myself one of them.

This Christmas I chose Williams' book for myself, expecting it to partner nicely with Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark (review here). I'd not bothered to learn the first thing about the book, since it was basically an impulse request based on seeing the hardcover on the remainders table at Munro's Books, but I did take the jacket copy seriously. Jacket copy is, of course, reliably misleading (as I've complained before), but sometimes....

Should I have expected to find 'twixt these covers "a luminous chronicle of finding beauty in a broken world," then, or "a narrative of hopeful acts by [Williams'] taking that which is broken and creating something whole"? Well, no. But I did. And this wasn't my experience of it.

We get about 30 pages based in Ravenna, Italy, where Williams learns from a wonderful artist the basics of how to make mosaics: as it turns out, the "mosaic" is the key metaphor for this book. We then get 60 pages of background about the Tempest family (good stuff) and about prairie dogs (good stuff, though more so for eco nerds like me than for yr average reader). So far, it's proving to be an interesting book, with some nice stylistic touches around the use of short paragraphs to mimic in textual form the aesthetics of mosaicists.

Then, things turn awkward: 110 pages almost entirely comprised of shorthand journal notes, from two weeks spent in an observation post watching and trapping prairie dogs as part of an ecological research project in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Fragments, sparks, connections, moments: I get it, life can feel like a mosaic sometimes, but even I had trouble reading each page in this lengthy section. Sure, some lovely moments, but ... someone should maybe have tried harder to talk her out of going exactly this way for the book's middle section. After all, a mosaic works in part through suggestion, by providing lines and flow and colour but NOT being an entirely representative art form: a mosaic flower recalls a flower, but it isn't. This journal section should have recalled a journal, rather than seeming in fact to be one.

And then Williams' brother Steve dies, leading to a 15-page meditation that I found very strong, bringing together the assorted pieces of the book up to that point. Some might say that Steve deserves better than to be compared to prairie dogs, but I disagree: this section worked for me.

The book's last 160 pages, though. Hmm.

Terry Tempest Williams went to Rwanda in 2005 as part of an artists' project to bring some healing and some sustainable development to a post-genocide country. It is impossible, perhaps, for a country to move beyond its genocide, but better words are hard to find. In brief, Williams goes there to work with a group called "Barefoot Artists" on a memorial project that's intended to bring positive change to a single local community. As their time in Rwanda goes on, though, the project's effects expand outside the local community, the local people immerse the artists ever more deeply in their lives, and the genocide becomes ever more real to Williams and the other artists.

Which leads this book from mosaic-making in Italy, to ecological research on prairie dogs, to explicit descriptions of moments from throughout the genocide. The details of the different ways that skulls can be fractured. Of how people survived by hiding under the rotting bodies of family members. Of child rape. Of a river so full of corpses that the bodies formed a dam, flooding a village's houses partly with the blood of its former occupants.

I read every page of this book. It ends with a small positive movement, though a tentative one, and it's no counterweight to the horrors that preceded it.

Terry Tempest Williams had three books she could have written here. She jammed them all together, using the metaphor of the mosaic, and setting mosaic-style short paragraphs beside each other so that the book's style matched the organizing metaphor.

I wish she had written the three books instead. They would have been remarkable, I bet. This one ... for me, it's a mess.


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