Back in 2020, I was happy to make the acquaintance of a new-to-me writer via the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight which I co-hosted with Lizzy. The author was Brian Dillon, and I read his wonderful book “Essayism” as part of that reading event; and I loved his take on the art of the essay, interspersed with autobiographical elements which really resonated, so much that I went on to cover his “Suppose a Sentence” (also from Fitzcarraldo) later in the year.

However, Dillon has a third Fitzcarraldo title, which has been lurking on my TBR since a mad flurry of purchasing during one of their periodical sales. It’s called “In The Dark Room”, a book which was first published in 2005 before being brought out by FE in (I think) 2017; and here Dillon delves more deeply into autobiographical territory whilst exploring memory, trauma and how we process the big events in our life.

Every life is rich with these hidden correspondences between things, submerged collusions between one time and another which are fully expressed only at the moment when one concentrates hard on the object, weighing its presence against the other, lost but still imaginable, things.

As I mentioned in my review of “Essayism”, Dillon lost both of his parents at a relatively young age; and that fact is pivotal to that book. In “Dark Room” Dillon looks back on those experiences to examine how memory works both culturally and emotionally, drawing on his on losses and the way he processes his past to look at the topic more widely. The book is split into sections, such as ‘House’, ‘Photographs’ and ‘Places’; in each of these, Dillon takes a particular lens to explore his past and how his memories of these elements work.

The result is a deep and emotionally complex book, which not only examines how we deal with our past and our memories, but also the effect such early losses can have. Dillon was understandably devastated by losing both parents so young, and only five years apart; and his references to later breakdowns and health problems of his own make it clear that losses like this cannot be easily processed or dealt with. It has to be added to this that there are cultural issues involved, both from the Irish Catholic milieu in which Dillon grew up (and which he seems to reject fiercely now) and also the time – back in the 20th century, we were not always so open with our emotions, or indeed in the way we communicated as families, and there is much which is repressed here.

The skin is a sort of screen on which are projected all the secret and unspeakable fears and desires which we would like to contain (but which we also long to express ). According to this way of thinking, all the psychic flow is in one direction: towards the surface, where the emotional slurry we cannot process is poured out onto this pristine surface, scarring it, discolouring it.

“Dark Room” is not always an easy read; the illness and final death of Dillon’s mother, from a rare and awful disease, when he was sixteen, is heartbreaking. Dillon, his two brothers and his father, seem lost afterwards and his father’s passing five years later leaves them even more adrift. Dillon never pulls his punches or shies away from saying things as they are; and this is a very honest piece of writing, where you’re never in doubt about his feelings or his beliefs. The title can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways, from a reference to the place where photographs (and therefore memories) are processed, and also the oft-felt need of humans to hide away in a darkened room when the real world is getting too much to bear…

So Dillon explores the objects left behind by his parents; the family photographs, capturing moments from his life and moments from before he existed; and deals with the places from his young life which now lodge in his memory with particuar resonances. He draws on Perec, Benjamin, Barthes, Bachelard, Proust and many others; and his meditations on what we carry with us locked in our memories are thought-provoking and fascinating.

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to pick up “In The Dark Room” just at the moment, although I did polyread it alongside the collection of Tove Ditlevsen’s short stories; and it seemed a non-fiction work would be a good choice to go with them. However, I’m very glad I did choose to read this right now; it’s a powerful, memorable, fierce and yet often beautiful piece of writing which, as well as making you think about our processes of memory, also stands as an emotional memorial to his parents. Another outstanding book from Dillon, which I highly recommend.