Review: The Light in The Dark

The Light in The Dark by Horatio Claire (Elliott & Thompson)

For a long time I didn’t understand the seasonal sadness, winter blues and depression that many people feel as the dark of winter comes on, because I am delighted as the days cool and autumn and winter approach, I’m just not a summer person – I find heat oppressive, it makes me miserable, unable to think or function properly. I love it when September starts to happen; I watch the leaves turn brown and gold, an autumn afternoon out picking berries or simply walking is a delight. I look forward to thrilling frosts, and snow – which we finally got on the 22nd January – makes me as giddy as it did when I was small.

However, I have suffered bouts of depression myself – though mine has not been brought on by the winter yet (though even I admit to finding February a bit of a struggle). I am aware of what it feels like to have depression brushing at the edges of you, of the fear you can feel when you sense it coming. Depression brings an all consuming feeling of helplessness, sadness, anxiety and fatigue. I have felt like I am actually going mad and there is a line in this book “I was mad, but aware-mad, at least” which rang true. We have to find ways to live with it, to function – that can involve drugs and therapy but also, increasingly, getting outside. We need to switch off the screens for a while and spend time engaged with the natural world.

The Light in The Dark takes the form of a journal which Horatio Clare kept over the winter months (October to March). He decides, he will “embrace this winter like a summer” and not lose touch with nature, – this, he hopes, will carry him through.

The book skips about in time – with recollections of winters past as well as the one he’s living through while writing the diary. Clare grew up on a hill farm in Wales and cold winters are not a stranger to him – how he and his brother would long for snow, to be excitingly cut off from the world and not have to go to school is a familiar feeling to me! He writes of an archetypal “winter city morning” in Saint Etienne, of life in a seaside cottage in Pembrokeshire (a passage I particularly enjoyed, I love the coast in winter) and the birth of his son Aubrey in Italy during a deep snow. The writing is magical and transporting, but Clare often reminds us that he is battling the lows.

In an entry on 7th February Clare describes how he finds himself incapable of doing anything more than washing up, can only shop from a list – depression leaves you incapable of making even simple decisions; he tells his wife he is “really struggling with cognitive functioning” (I call this brain fog, it’s awful). Yet at the same time he does exactly what he said he would do, and there is a gorgeous passage about a post snowstorm twilight:

And then the snow stopped and the twilight was beautiful, all the valleys contours, the earth, dimly sugared, foregrounding the woods. The trees’ tangle of cross-branches appeared especially bright, their verticals pale gold or faint purple.

Through the journal we are introduced not only to place and Horatio Clare’s own experience, but also to his family, colleagues, students and community. I felt that he was not only noticing the natural world, but also making note, often, that he is not alone. Depression can feel isolating – I think it probably felt important to acknowledge this network around him, especially over the winter season.

This is a beautifully written book. In places it felt like I shouldn’t be reading it – as if I had picked up a private diary and started to peek through – but this was written in the spirit of openness, to write about winter’s difficulties, and its rewards. It encourages readers to engage with winter, not to hide away from it. It’s a difficult read occasionally, but there is a great deal of warmth among the cold. Clare did not lose touch with nature; his descriptions of winter landscapes are fantastic – this is a gorgeous book.

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