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The cure for sleep

Tanya Shadrick

(Orion Books, 2022)

Review by Kate Morrison


Two weeks after her son was born, Tanya Shadrick began haemorrhaging at home and was rushed to hospital where she nearly died, finding herself going ‘through the dark towards a distant, tiny whiteness’.

In that moment, her strongest feeling was ‘regret – sharp and precise as a knife inside an oyster-shell’ for a life not fully lived, for ‘all the times and ways I’d turned away from risk and opportunity’.

The regret was paired with an equally strong and raging desire to take those risks, at the exact point when a new baby made this improbably hard. Her first instinct – to leave husband and baby behind in order to live a brave, new creative life – was followed by a harder decision. She would stay, finding a way to live an artist’s life both ‘around and through the work of being a mother’. 

This extraordinary, courageous memoir traces the life that led Shadrick to this decision and charts her path afterwards, as she taps into her deepest instincts to find her way as an artist and works through the traumas of her childhood.

In particular, it explores the challenges she faces as a working-class writer and a mother, navigating the constraints and prejudices that conspire to block her from her work. Told in clear, poetic prose you want to turn over in your hands and hold up to the light, it is also a memoir of Shadrick’s relationship with the natural world.

Shadrick’s roots are deep in rural Devon. Abandoned by her father before she turned two, she grew up with a mother and stepfather who fought constantly; ‘an only child in a lampless lane with two adults made blind and deaf with misery’. 

Her own marriage to husband Nye, from a Welsh mining family, is a sanctuary from her childhood; happy but self-contained. Their early attempts to work as writers bump up against ‘a hesitance to leave behind our people, fully and forever, which is what we believed writing would mean for us‘.

Shadrick’s near-death brings her crashing back to that abandoned dream of writing, though the transformation is not instant. Rather, it is a gradual opening up to the world and her own potential that eventually leads to her first formal, public work – writing a mile on long scrolls of paper at the open-air swimming pool she has grown to love. She turns it into performance art, kneeling at the task, dressed in an artist’s uniform of headscarf, swimming costume and apron.

Emboldened by her new-found creativity, she dares to ask for things which are antithetical to the selflessness society expects of mothers and which come close to risking her marriage. When her own mother says Shadrick should do what she needs to as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, she responds: ‘What if what I need can’t be done without it? Hurting others?’

Her memoir is breathtakingly honest about how close she does come to hurting others in pursuit of her work, in ways that would be unremarkable for a male artist but are still shocking for a woman and a mother. It’s a story that says so much about the painful, liberating process of becoming an artist, and about the marriage of conscious and unconscious mind required to do so. As a memoir of a writer’s journey, it offers a guiding light. For mothers who write, it will be much more.

Kate Morrison is a British historical fiction author. Her debut novel, A Book of Secrets, was published in 2019 by Jacaranda books and longlisted for the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown Award and the Diverse Book Awards. In 2021 she ran a historical fiction writing course for the British Library. 

Twitter: @katecmorrison