Anna Lyndsey lives in the dark. She was living a pleasantly ordinary life, working for the British government, when she began to feel a sensitivity to light: At first, computer screens seemed to burn her face, and then artificial lights, and then, finally, sunlight.
She describes the moment when she realized the strange burning in her skin was caused by light: "The rays shoot into the room with the power and intensity of a laser, and I feel my feet ignite. Seconds later, in my mind, comes hideous illumination, a parody of St. Paul's blinding light. Here, at last, is the truth, stark and unarguable, with no space left for doubt. I have my cause and my effect; other possibilities burn away, like flesh on a heretic's bones." Eventually, Lyndsey (a pseudonym) must seal herself in a dark room, covering window and door cracks.
With an illness memoir like Girl in the Dark, there is always the temptation to obscure the reality of the unhealthy body with metaphor. And darkness, Lyndsey observes, lends itself dangerously to metaphor. There's something Gothic, something oddly glamorous about a woman whose skin cannot bear contact with light: a thin woman alone in a dark room, mummified in layers of light-protectant clothing. She travels in a box she compares to Dracula's coffin, created by her husband to keep out the sun's rays.
But the body is inescapable: Once, she lies down on the carpet, only to realize she is lying on her own matted hair, which had been invisibly accumulating in the dark: "In the end I take a comb and comb my carpet, tearing up handful after handful. There is enough to knit into a garment, or to build nests for several birds."
Her prose is disorienting and dreamy, a nonlinear string of impressions that tries to capture what it feels like to live in the dark, where her personhood, her presence as a body, is always in question. She becomes "[a] thing that lurks, that creeps, that mopes, that wanders occasionally from room to room, then flees in terror from the wide-flung welcoming front door, the joyful flicking-on of lights."
But she is also funny, describing with understated, ornery humor the injuries that result from having sex in complete blackness, the perils of knitting blind (though she produces part of a scarf, "clear woolly proof of virtue"), and, best of all, the frustration of dealing with well-meaning reiki healers and New Agey types convinced they can cure her through diet changes or healing rocks.
"It is my misfortune," she writes, "to have a condition which is particularly susceptible to metaphor ... Clearly I am terrified of human contact, indeed, afraid of life itself, desiring subconsciously to reverse the event of my own birth, and retreat to the dark close quarters of the womb ... What I must do is work on myself(somehow, in the dark, on my own) and address my outstanding emotional issues(if I could work out what these were, apart from a frustrated desire to get out of the dark)."
How do you deal with a sudden, violent narrowing of life — from something that's expansive, impossibly full, to a small existence where meaning, instead of flowing in streams, must be eked out from unwilling corners? You either despair, or you find joy in the small. She does both, and when it is the second, there is something ecstatic — erotic, even — about her sense impressions: "Oh, the smell of the world, to those who are not in it. When I hover on the threshold between the inside and the out — opening or closing a fanlight, or beside an open door at night — the smell fizzes in my nostrils like champagne. It is a cocktail of subtle and infinite parts ... a compound of life and decay, of growth, damp and wildness, of heat, dust, leaves and flowers, tarmac, cars, earth, stone and stars."
And what about identity — are you still yourself in a box? Are you still yourself in the dark? Are you still yourself if everything you associated with your former life is impossible? For Lyndsey, this question — is there such a thing as a stable, continuous self? — goes from being theoretical to being desperately, urgently relevant.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.