Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth

8th Oct 2019

Notes Made While Falling Jenn Ashworth
At once an account of post-surgery PTSD, a reckoning with a turbulent childhood, a meditation on the power and limitations of the writing process and the piecing back together of a fractured consciousness, Jenn Ashworth’s first work of non-fiction is expansive in scope and stunning in its power.

To call Notes Made While Falling a memoir of a traumatic birth and its aftermath is like saying that writing a book is about putting one word after another until it’s done: it’s technically true, but it’s a definition that barely scrapes the surface.

Self-reflective and ouroboros-like, Notes Made While Falling is always in the process of writing itself — the text frequently draws attention to its own artificial present — and Jenn Ashworth is frank in her discussion of the difficulty of writing about such tangled, distressing topics.

Among the things that are done to Ashworth’s body and the terrifying, repeated flashbacks of hearing her own blood pouring out on to the floor while she undergoes emergency surgery with inadequate anaesthesia, there is the sense that the refusal of these events to submit to the neutralising effect of fiction is a fresh pain.

The desire to bury these painful ideas within the distancing effect of novelisation is expressed repeatedly, and yet, simultaneously, the frustrated realisation that there are some stories that cannot be told behind the veil of fiction.

Playing with conventions of form and structure allows Ashworth another opportunity to shape the unshapeable, providing an artificial skeleton to frame a thought process that is by its nature fragmentary and disordered.

Yet even these attempts to constrain and tame fall short. One section detailing an agonising writer’s block is organised using subheadings from a lecture Ashworth delivered on the creative writing process. Another zig-zags back and forth, fact-checking itself.

One central section begins to disintegrate entirely, a structural reflection of the wound cut into her body and the echoing bifurcation of her mind, thoughts splitting from one another and reconfiguring themselves in strange and paranoid ways.

The subsections of this chapter end abruptly, mid-sentence or even mid-word, leaping from one topic to another only to return several pages later. The effect is disorienting and disquieting.

We do not just read about Ashworth’s apophenia and memory lapses, but rather experience it alongside her. If I am inventing things, she writes, frustrated and disempowered, I want to know about it.

Notes Made While Falling is a staggeringly good book, the kind I am tempted to begin re-reading as soon as I have finished it because there is so much to tease out, so much meaning stitched between the layers of the text.

It is a raw account of a woman who has been repeatedly failed, by her family and the medical establishment and organised religion and, finally, by her own mind; and it is an incisive exploration of writing around illness and pain, from Woolf to Agatha Christie.

Notes Made While Falling is an extraordinary book; a reminder that when life seems drenched through with pain and fear, it is writing, reading and connecting through our shared experiences that provide a way to survive.

Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth is out this month from Goldsmiths Press.