What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness


"The most startling, discomforting, complicated, ungovernable, hilarious, and heartrending of memoirs" (The Telegraph, london)—the story of a celebrated writer's sudden descent into blindness, and the redemptive journey into the past that her loss of sight sets in motion

In 2006 the acclaimed novelist Candia McWilliam began losing her sight, a gradual onset of blindness that seemed like an assault cruelly tailored for someone whose life consisted of reading and writing. ...

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What to Look for in Winter

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"The most startling, discomforting, complicated, ungovernable, hilarious, and heartrending of memoirs" (The Telegraph, london)—the story of a celebrated writer's sudden descent into blindness, and the redemptive journey into the past that her loss of sight sets in motion

In 2006 the acclaimed novelist Candia McWilliam began losing her sight, a gradual onset of blindness that seemed like an assault cruelly tailored for someone whose life consisted of reading and writing. Propelled to look inward and into the past, McWilliam embarked on a painful personal voyage through a waste of snows punctuated by shards of ice as she attempted to write her life back. What followed was a flow of memory: her childhood in Edinburgh, her devastating alcoholism, finding and losing her bearings in Cambridge and London, her marriages, her children, and, overshadowing it all, her mother's suicide.

A personal story of love and loss, addiction and reclamation, her piercing memoir is also a celebration of friendship, reading, children, and the consolations of landscape. In What to Look for in Winter, McWilliam riffles through her many incarnations to find her true self and discover how she may come to see once more.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Imagine your world abruptly shrouded in darkness, not because there's something wrong with your vision, but because your eyelids cannot stay open. This is what happened to Scottish writer McWilliam (A Case of Knives) at the age of 50. The condition is called blepharospasm and it's devastating, especially to McWilliam, a life-long reader, who still buys books "to have them handy by me, to have their breath in my air," though she can no longer read them. McWilliam believes that "by writing about my blindness and the life that...has brought it, I might lift it from my eyes." The resulting memoir sparkles with vivid descriptions, of her native Scotland and the idyllic island of Colonsay, of the many people in her life, and of the tragedies that punctuate it-a mother who committed suicide at the age of 36, two failed marriages, a long bout of alcoholism, crippling self-doubt, and finally, blindness. McWilliam's love of language is evident throughout. She is able to get at the essence of things in one scintillating sentence, as when she writes of her estranged architectural historian father: "He engaged with houses, less so with home." The book is an astonishingly beautiful portrait of what the world looks like when you can no longer see it.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Sunday Telegraph (London)
“The most startling, discomforting, complicated, ungovernable, hilarious and heart-rending of memoirs.”
The Telegraph (London)
“What a precise, poetic dissection of a life this is; how brave she was, and how wise, to undertake it.”
Sunday Times (London)
“Brilliant . . . breathtakingly raw in its self-excoriation. . . . Unforgettable.”
The Times (London)
“One of the most extraordinary literary autobiographies of this or any other year.”
The Independent
New Statesman
“Beautiful, harrowing and in every way remarkable.”
the Oprah Magazine O
“A dramatic memoir, which showcases [McWilliam’s] elegant voice.”
Edmund White
“An astonishingly honest memoir about blindness, failed marriages and alcoholism as well as the joys of motherhood and the natural world. All delivered in a beautiful, athletic style one can only envy.”
Dave Nicholls
“Candia McWilliam’s much-praised memoir What to Look for in Winter is my favourite book of the year, startlingly honest, wry, sad and wise.”
Susan Ager
“[An] astonishing memoir - sprawling, riveting, out-of-control, heartbreaking, hilarious and at times so vivd and captivating that, yes, you might wish you had stood in McWilliam’s shoes.”
Jan Stuart
“[A] shimmering memoir….The unblinking contemplation of a life whose woozy chutes-and-ladders path led, literally and otherwise, into darkness….Eloquently recalled….McWilliam gathers the ineffable spaces of her past and knots them into something practical, expansive, and enduring.”
O: the Oprah Magazine
“A dramatic memoir, which showcases [McWilliam’s] elegant voice.”
Kirkus Reviews
Not just a remarkable memoir of McWilliam's (Wait Till I Tell You, 1997, etc.) battle with the onset of blindness, but also a blissful celebration of the poetry of her prose. Strange little asides, digressions and complete interruptions mark this work. Some readers may shake their heads in confusion, but they will surely forgive as the stream of the author's consciousness carries them along. She explains her functional blindness simply and matter-of-factly because, as a good Scot, speaking of dramatic personal matters is not acceptable. A masterful wordmonger, McWilliam consistently delivers the perfect word or phrase to express each thought. When she lost her sight, she was forced to adapt to audio books, but she never lost her love of the physical book. In addition to the loveliness of the prose, the author's life story is just good reading: her childhood in Edinburgh, happy days spent on the Scottish Isle of Colonsay, the years she ignored her writing talents and how she dealt with her blindness. She drops names in the British way of assuming readers know exactly whom she is talking about, and she includes so many of England's greats, who stimulated, encouraged and prodded her along the way. There is a slight hiccup in the middle of the book as McWilliam descends into cathartic confession, but it's easily skimmed through and worth the wade. Her alcoholism and guilt are nothing new, but readers will cherish the author's infectious bibliophilic delight. "I want to attest to the goodness of life and I want to share something," she writes in closing. "If it isn't a life--well, then, let it be a sentence." Anyone who enjoys a play of words and appreciates the turn of a phrase in a beautifully constructed sentence will value this book for years to come.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062094506
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/20/2012
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.06 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Candia McWilliam was born in Edinburgh. She is the author of A Case of Knives (1988), which won a Betty Trask Prize; A Little Stranger (1989); Debatable Land (1994), which was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Premio Grinzane Cavour in its Italian translation for the best foreign novel of the year; and a collection of stories, Wait Till I Tell You (1997). In 2006 she began to suffer from the effects of blepharospasm and became functionally blind as a result. In 2009 she underwent an operation to partially reverse the condition. What to Look for in Winter won the South Bank Sky Arts Award for literature, the Spear's Book Award for memoir, the Hawthornden Prize, and was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 26, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This is probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read.

    This is probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. The title, What to Look for in Winter, now seems fitting as I felt like I was trudging through four feet of snow trying to finish this book. The author has a condition called blepharospasm, which causes her eyelids to involuntarily close, so she is able to see, but literally cannot keep her eyes open. I thought this condition and her perspective would be very interesting to read about, but every page just seemed like an exploration of her self pity. I mean, it’s absolutely understandable that she’s depressed, but this is pathetic. There are parts where she will begin to address an issue that will surely stir up some more angst, but instead decides that she “can’t possibly go on”…how ironic because I felt exactly the same way.

    I would not recommend this book to anyone, especially someone with vision impairment, not only because it’s so discouraging and miserable, but because the author talks more about her alcoholism and divorce than anything else. This book should not have been marketed the way it was. There was no resolution and hardly any humor about the situation; this is the author’s personal diary. The only redeeming quality about McWilliam’s writing is her extensive vocabulary. I appreciate having to use a dictionary from time to time when reading a book. Unfortunately, I would have rather read the dictionary.

    Reviewed by Brittany for Book Sake.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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