In Gratitude collects like metal filings around these two magnetic points — the functional end of Diski’s life as a writer, and the functional beginning of it, due to [Doris] Lessing’s 'rush into kindness' and mentorship ... Diski is not condemning Lessing for her behavior. She is seeking, in these final moments of her own life, the fullest possible understanding of a woman who represented, despite her prickliness and remove, the closest thing she had to a family. Diski courageously and persistently speaks what many might deem unspeakable ... Diski proves again and again her spectacular originality in her ability to empathize with as well as profess a total failure to comprehend the mind of another human being. These pages are evidence of her undiminished aptitude, even while her body was on the wane, to vigorously inhabit and investigate emotional spaces that shift and change shape as her sentences accrue ... Diski’s final book proves transcendently disobedient, the most existence-affirming and iconoclastic defense a writer could mount against her own extinction.
The cliche goes that at the moment of death all our life passes in front of us. Rarely can a book so effectively have dramatised that idea. Diski wondered towards the end whether art was always a product of pain; she was defiantly unconvinced. Though she shared much of Lessing’s blunt distrust of sentiment, throughout this book she can’t help finding at least as much comfort in her own roles of mother and of grandmother and of wife (to 'The Poet' Ian Patterson) as much as 'writer.' Despite her unvarnished fear of 'dissolution, of casting my particles to the wind,' and at the 'insoluble grief' of not seeing her grandchildren grow up, there is, still, a triumphant note to her fast unspooling history. As the scenes of her traumatic and chaotic childhood pass by she reminds us, sentence by sentence, not only that she emerged to become every bit the writer she always dreamed of being, but also that, despite everything, along the way she learned a great deal about love.
With In Gratitude, she has written a different kind of cancer memoir, and an almost entirely platitude-free one, simply by writing a typically sui-generis Jenny Diski book. Which is to say, a book that pushes in five or six directions at once...There’s a raw, almost feral quality to Ms. Diski’s writing about cowering in Lessing’s long shadow. It’s a trait she brought to so much of her writing. It’s just like her to leave us a title, In Gratitude, that slowly sheds its softness and sends up a mischievous flare.
In Gratitude works on many levels: as a memoir of an unusual adolescence; as an essay on family dysfunction; as an intimate mini-biography of a Nobel-prize-winning novelist; and as an unillusioned meditation on illness and death. At its heart, though, is the story of a difficult relationship between women, both, as it happens, outstanding writers. However prolific she has been in the past – 18 titles by my count – it’s the story Diski most needed to tell.
Both stories are told with painful, ruthless precision, savage humor, anger, frustration, and bewilderment ... She brings the dying life of the body startlingly onto the page ... Diski is unforgiving about Doris Lessing, as well as obsessed by her, and her account makes harsh reading ... This fierce tone of Diski’s about Lessing is not entirely consistent. The question of gratitude remains unresolved. Part of Diski’s life story—and part of why she wrote this book when she knew she was dying—is that she did, also, feel some gratitude to Doris Lessing.
[Diski] consistently steers the narrative away from tidy conclusions. She doesn’t want to fix the story line so much as she wants to see beyond it. And she does not proceed in a linear fashion; she describes her years with Lessing in between scenes of recent hospital visits, memories of her earlier childhood, and digressions on illness and mortality. It can make a reader feel out of place, or as though she’s waiting for a train that’s never going to arrive. We are used to stories in which heightened emotions lead to one catharsis or another. This story just ends...Really, what is different and moving about In Gratitude is not Diski’s refusal of cancer’s clichés so much as the way that she chews on them, wincing, until she finds the unknown in 'the too well known.'
[Diski] is sly and wry, with an underhanded humor ... Diski speculates and imagines, but, in the end, there are no answers. This is the power of the memoir, the willingness and bravery (she’d hate that word, I think) to sit in the uncertainty of an unfinished life and ask the questions at all.