Smyth pulls off a tricky double homage in her beautifully written first book, a deft blend of memoir, biography and literary criticism that’s a gift to readers drawn to big questions about time, memory, mortality, love and grief ... a strong addition to a growing canon of hyper-literary memoirs.
Smyth’s memoir is most absorbing when it is absorbed in her own life, especially in her portrait of her father, whose alcoholism creeps deftly into the narrative ... Her prose is so fluid and clear throughout that it’s not surprising to observe her view of her family, its cracks and fissures, sharpen into unsparing focus. The truth is, I didn’t retain much of Smyth’s commentary on Woolf. It is insightful and reverent, but not revelatory, at least not to someone who has studied her work ... [Smyth's] exploration of grown-up love, the kind that accounts for who the loved one actually is, not who you want him or her to be, gains power and grace as her story unfolds. I suspect her book could itself become solace for people navigating their way through the complexities of grief for their fallen idols. And they will be lucky to have it.
...there are some memoirs that reach right out and capture us ... [an] extraordinary debut ... Smyth’s fascination with Woolf enriches her own writing ... The result is a memoir enlarged and illuminated by Woolf’s insights, but mediated by Smyth’s trenchant observations and wit ... This is a transcendent book, not a simple meditation on one woman’s loss, but a reflection on all of our losses, on loss itself, on how to remember and commemorate our dead.
All the Lives We Ever Lived is both a reflection on To the Lighthouse and a lingeringly beautiful elegy in its own right ... Smyth’s probing narrative is effortlessly entwined with reflections and digressions on Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse. She dances skillfully between the two, often moved by an urge to conflate Mrs. Ramsay and her father, or by the need to shape her grief using her favorite novel as a template ... What [Smyth's] book does is add to our perception of To the Lighthouse, not through analysis or commentary, but by writing through the novel, assuming and exploring its worldview, and in the process redescribing it to us with an infectious passion and hard-earned wisdom ... In the end, the most revelatory thing about All the Lives We Ever Lived is its absence of revelation. Nothing stands still, nothing is permanent. There are just the little odds and ends to lay hold of, some sight, some sound. It is enough.
All the Lives We Ever Lived is a quiet book and, like [To the Lighthouse], an intensely interior one ... Smyth... expertly dissects the finest gradations of emotion in any given scene ... [Smyth's] reticence coupled with her candor are refreshing. It’s a model of writing about oneself that emphasizes focus and control over unbridled openness ... In the case of All the Lives We Ever Lived, this approach [of combining the personal with literary criticism] sometimes works ... But like many books that trade in both memoir and criticism, Smyth’s is somewhat lopsided ... Still, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a powerful book, driven by the engine of Smyth’s controlled, rich description. It’s an astonishingly clear-eyed portrait of a person through myriad lenses, a kind of prismatic attempt to capture a life.
... powerful ... Like Woolf’s [To the Lighthouse], Smyth’s memoir imagistically flows across time and space ... Like many ardent acolytes, Smyth’s worship of her literary idol can at times lead to cringeworthy stylistic homage... But there are many lovely moments when Smyth’s prose soars into poetry, as in her final paragraph, the rich description of a final walk she takes with her father by a rusty railway bridge...
The memoir is a quiet book; its private tragedies are the consequence of a slow physical and emotional decay at the hands of her father’s disease. Still, Smyth’s prose pulsates with intensity, and its lyrical qualities make it a moving one. Grief and its disconcerting effects take center stage ... With her first book, Smyth is able to give that comfort to a new generation of readers as well.
Smyth finds a way to translate how fiction helps us understand that formlessness, and the way in which even the death of a close relative, especially in a sanitized hospital setting, can feel remote and inaccessible ... In writing her own book, Smyth has discovered a way to appreciate the changing leaves, one that works both as memoir and as an aid to those who mourn.
[To the Lighthouse] becomes the fire that fuses the sand of Smyth’s personal memories into perfect glass ... In All the Lives We Ever Lived the prose is buttery, performing culinary magic on difficult ingredients. Literary criticism has rarely been this pleasurable to read, or as imperative ... [Like Woolf, expressing the richness of human experience] is Smyth’s genius too ... no future book on grief and reading fiction ought now to be contemplated. Because All the Lives We Ever Lived has definitively, and beautifully, consumed this particular scheme.
The most alive scenes in this book are the ones describing various father-daughter moments and interactions ... Indeed, the [memoir] has several poetic, even cinematic, scenes depicting what it's like to live by the water and what that does to the exteriors and interiors of both houses and people. Smyth's writing shimmers brightly in these scenes too ... Although Smyth's literary criticism of Woolf's novel doesn't yield new insights — particularly for loyal Woolf readers — this memoir certainly does justice to Joyce Carol Oates' 2014 definition [establishing the writer's voice in counterpoint to the subject, with something more than adulation or explication at stake] ... Our sorrow itself also changes shape and texture over time. Smyth's book makes a brave attempt to portray all of this, including how her empathy and understanding for her widowed mother evolves after their shared loss.
All the Lives could have read as gush; instead, Smyth reaffirms the value of novels as existential guideposts ... Smyth’s beautiful debut is more tightly strung together than you’d imagine a memoir-cum-literary-requiem could be. It is innovative, like Woolf, in its power of association and its ability to transform the intangible nature of grief into a warm, graspable, fleshy mass ... Where All the Lives We Ever Lived really makes its mark is in its living embodiment of an author and her work.
A conceptually ambitious and assured debut, successfully bridging memoir and literary criticism ... A work of incisive observation and analysis, exquisite writing, and an attempt to determine if there is 'any revelation that could lessen loss, that could help to make the fact of death okay.'