ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED
Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf
By Katharine Smyth
It begins with a house by the sea — not in the Hebrides, as in Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” or Cornwall, as in Woolf’s childhood, but in the small town of Tiverton on the Rhode Island coast, where Katharine Smyth’s parents bought a tumbledown weekend house when she was 5. Her parents, both architects, draw up renovation plans, and, as she writes in her memoir, “All the Lives We Ever Lived,” she learns early that proximity to the sea has a way of both distilling time into postcard moments and speeding up our perception of its effects: “We learned quickly how bleached things become in a house on the water, how exhaustively salt and light leach color, leaving behind pale blues and yellows. The spines of books, the cork-tiled floors, the rugs and prints and bed linens — each became a cheerfully bloodless version of itself.”
This portrayal of entropy gently echoes “Time Passes,” the hallmark section of “To the Lighthouse” in which a decade’s worth of dramatic plot points involving the Ramsay family are narrated against the backdrop of their Hebrides house’s descent through neglect into near-ruin. And it gives us a clue as to the terrain of “All the Lives We Ever Lived,” that it will range over the foundational memories of childhood, the heightened attachments and grave disappointments of family, the death of a beloved parent and the quest to create out of all those elements a work of art that survives.
Smyth opens her memoir with a preface that states her case for “To the Lighthouse” as the through line for her life, the “story of everything,” the one among all the stories out there that resonates most deeply with her psyche, even if it does not conform to the literal contours of her family. (She is an only child, compared with the Ramsays’ brood of eight, and the hero worship those Ramsay children direct toward their mother she bestows on her father.) Woolf’s fictional portrait of parental adoration and loss speaks profoundly to her from the moment she first encounters the novel, and she dives headfirst into the complete oeuvre, with productive results: Smyth has, her Oxford University tutor tells her during a junior year abroad, “an intuitive sense of Woolf.”
And so, Woolf threads through her memoir as a conduit between scenes or emotions. A reference to “To the Lighthouse” gives way to a brief analysis of the passage, then the link to Woolf’s own biography and then Smyth’s reading of the novel and the ways it connects to her own life and memories. But it’s hard to relegate a writer as formidable as Woolf to connective tissue, nor would it be fair to ask a debut author to measure up to her mature style. The lighthouse casts too large a shadow.