How do you make a life after a life? This is the question at the centre of Deborah Levy’s second instalment in her “living memoir” three-book series. The first part, Things I Don’t Want to Know was Levy’s forties, The Cost of Living is her fifties, and the third, yet-to-be-published, book will be her sixties. It’s an ambitious project to document her middle ages, a period of time that is rarely documented in art if experienced by a woman.
In The Cost of Living, Levy is remaking her life after two decades of a steady home life falls apart. Newly divorced with two nearly grown-up daughters, Levy moves out of her old family home and into a tiny apartment in central London. She’s trying to write – this is pre Man Booker nominated Levy – and seeks a room of her own. Instead she makes do with a friend’s shed, where she has written a majority of her books including this one.
The Cost of Living is a memoir of ten years of Levy’s life – she recounts the end of her marriage, her mother’s death, and her struggles with imagining a life without her partner. But it’s also Levy’s rallying call and a feminist manifesto. Gender is Levy’s concern and what she calls the “phantom of femininity […] an illusion, a delusion, a societal hallucination. She is a very tricky character to play and it is a role (sacrifice, endurance, cheerful suffering) that has made some women go mad. This is not a story I wanted to hear all over again. It was time to find new main characters.” The Cost of Living is Levy’s endeavor to write a new story of gender. One of her concerns if how men forget the names of women: “I wondered why my male colleagues often forgot the names of most of the women he met at social events. He would always refer to them as someone’s wife or girlfriend, as if that was all I needed to know. If we don’t have names, who are we?” The erasure of women is a micro-aggression that Levy is determined to rewrite.
While The Cost of Living is sharply witty, with insights like the forgetting of women’s names, it’s also an emotional mediation of the loneliness of writing, middle-age, and living in the city, that is personal, political, and generous. Levy’s books are made from the cost of living and The Cost of Living is made from the cost of unmaking a home and an old life. It’s is a truly joyous celebration of creating new narratives, whether those are the narratives of our lives or of our novels.
The Cost of Living was published by Hamish Hamilton on 5th April 2018.