Book Review: Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

Review by Elaine Mead

I’ve seen Fiona Wright speak twice on festival panels, once at the Feminist Writers Festival in Sydney last year, and earlier this year at Perth Writers Week. She has a lovely stage presence, a sharp sense of humour and a way of delivering her insights that belies their depth.

She is a successful poet with other published works, but this is her first foray into an essay collection and at its core is a focus on her private, intimate world of living with an eating disorder. Probably as you are now thinking, when I first heard the subject matter of her book, I did a little inward groan and decided it wasn’t for me. And while the book is not a barrel of laughs by any means, neither is it the graphic, persistent barrage of recounting traumatic experiences trap, that so many such named ‘sick lit’ books fall into.

Instead, it is a carefully crafted, beautifully eloquent and intensely self-aware collection of essays about Wright’s experiences of living with her disorder. It’s a deep delve into the lies we tell ourselves in order to harbour the idea that we are completely fine, when we know that we are definitely not. It’s her take on how nourishment and food (or lack of it) spurs her to be what she has always craved – a writer – and the sharpness her hunger provides her to do her work. It’s a personal account of the toil that way of existing took from her. Physically, mentally and socially.

I have never had an eating disorder, but I did study the two key disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa – during my degree in psychology. I have also, like many women, experienced the deep cut of heartbreak. It is not an uncommon outcome of the broken hearted to lose weight, and lose weight I did. Rapidly. The daily twinge of hunger was a welcome counter to the rip in my heart. The admiring comments from men and women alike regarding my new figure also didn’t hurt. When you study eating disorders, they tell you that it is almost always about control. About attempting to grasp tightly to something that you and only you have the power to dictate in your life. In my experience, this was true. But my heart healed and with it I no longer felt the need to welcome the sickly sweet pain of hunger in my daily life. Wright’s story taught me the sheer amount of willpower and strength it takes to stay hungry.

Her writing engrossed me because it is not just about her eating disorder. She has an unusual physical condition that affects her ability to eat and hold food down. It is easy to see the slippery slope she finds herself on and her attempts at gaining control over something no one is able to help her with or give her answers for. When you have no control and the medical profession around you are asking if your experience is truthful, I can see why you would seek other paths of ownership.

This is not a self-help book. Wright is not seeking empathy or justification for the life she has led. She refreshingly takes full responsibility for her experiences, and writes about them in a way that I think many who are not familiar with eating disorders will find enlightening and compassionate.

Wright asserts herself as socially awkward, graceless, as someone who hides her insecurity behind humour but her writing is quite the opposite. Every word is deliberate and her prose is elegant. Direct. Wright doesn’t offer opinion one way or another for being good or bad based on her life. She simply offers her story of hunger and what it has taught her so far.

In short: this book is one of the best collections of memoir essays I’ve ever read. I highly encourage you to do the same.

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