by Kitty Kelley
Upon his death in 1938, Thomas Wolfe bequeathed to America’s literary canon a 1,100-page manuscript which, published posthumously, trumpeted a universal truth: “You can’t go home again.” Rebecca Mead now challenges the bard of Asheville, North Carolina, with her third book, Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return.
A British subject who graduated from Oxford, Mead emigrated to the U.S. in 1988 on a student visa to do graduate work at New York University and stayed for 30 years. She lived in Manhattan, endured numerous cycles of “falling in love, being in love and falling out of love.” Then she met her husband, also a writer, moved to Brooklyn, had a child, and, in 2011, became an American citizen. But she did not live happily ever after.
Mead grew increasingly dismayed over Brooklyn’s urban development of rising towers that encroached on her sylvan view: “Birnam Wood was coming to Dunsinane, I thought.” Worse was the right-wing clamor of the Tea Party that arose in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. Then came a nationalistic rhetoric that spread like gangrene. Finally, roiled by dystopian fears of Donald Trump, Mead and her husband decided to flee Dunsinane with their young son. They packed 170 boxes of books and flew first class to the U.K. on one-way tickets.
Months later, in 2018, Mead, a correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote an article about her repatriation, “A New Citizen Decides to Leave the Tumult of Trump’s America.” She seemed to be road-testing the idea of a future book on “the wrenching choice to return to Britain.” In her essay, she admitted that going home was not ideal:
“London is not a utopia; housing, in particular, is debilitatingly expensive…I am under no illusions that the U.K. is a beacon of progressivism. This is a move from the fire into the frying pan at best.”
Four years later, Home/Land reflects on that frying pan and its cost in terms of adjustment and accommodation. In his British elementary school, her Brooklyn-born son observes, “Everyone is so white.”
Much of what besets the U.S. — political turbulence, gun and gang violence, and immigration issues exacerbated by the pandemic — bedevils the U.K., too, but on a much smaller scale, which provides Mead with a sense of security.
Her regrets? Her reliefs? These questions, and more, are asked and answered in penetrating detail by a writer who pans for gold and presents it many times, albeit in sentences that are long and somewhat convoluted. For example, when Mead discovers that her father, as a child, lived in London’s Camden Square, where she now lives, she writes:
“And so, as I’d stepped onto the roof deck from the bedroom of the new house the realtor took me to — fantasizing a life in which I’d emerge in the morning with a cup of coffee in my hand and survey the landscape of narrow gardens and the backs of houses before descending to spend the day at my desk — I’d unwittingly been looking directly across at windows from which my father had surely looked out as a young boy in the arms of his mother.”
She continues, “To me this collision of the past and the present of Camden Square — the invisible tracery in which the threads of my father’s life and mine have against all odds, crossed and interwoven — is charged, if not exactly with meaning, then with wonder.”
Mead enumerates the benefits of trading a noisy, jangled democracy in the U.S. for a quieter life in an island nation about to experience the upset of Brexit, which she predicts will be “dark and chaotic.” For her, Britain’s advantages appear to be free healthcare, remarkably efficient public transportation, and college tuition capped at $12,000 a year (in the U.S., it can run more than $60,000 annually).
She feels the move across the pond gives her son a larger periscope on the world, and better positions her to cover international stories for the New Yorker, as was evidenced by her recent trip to Pompeii to profile the excavation of the 79 A.D. ruins from Mount Vesuvius. “I can get on a train…in the morning and be in Amsterdam by early afternoon, having traveled through four countries before lunchtime.”
Home/Land reads like a polyglot of personal diary and literary travelogue in which a writer meanders back and forth between her youth in America, including “years of psychotherapy,” and her present life in Britain as a woman of 56, an age at which, she bemoans, she feels invisible. Mead delves into the personal by discussing menopause and her humiliation over having hot flashes and experiencing changes in her brain chemistry.
Like an archeologist, she leads readers on a literary dig across London, over the open fields of Hampstead Heath, and into Fort Greene Park to discover a mound known as Boadicea’s Grave, named for an ancient British queen. The scholar in Mead instructs readers about the monarch now known as Boudicea and her bloody uprising in 60 A.D., adding parenthetically that “the root of ‘Boudica’ is the Celtic word for victory.” For those itching to return to the present, Mead first insists on more information about the victorious Queen Boadicea as celebrated in a 19th-century poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
She then segues into Iron Age forts like Maiden Castle, where she informs readers that “ancient Britons built concentric rings of ditches and rises upon the slopes of a high saddle-backed hill, with labyrinth entry points so that when it is seen in aerial photographs the site resembles the maze toy my son once had, a wooden disk cut with circular grooves through which he tipped and twisted a steel ball bearing.” (See the warning above about lengthy sentences.)
Like any British memoirist born “lower middle class,” she also examines her country’s punishing class system and rightly applauds the state-subsidized education inaugurated in the 1980s as “the most important engine of social mobility.”
Rebecca Mead then ends her book like a pilgrim, still seeking to find her place in her new homeland.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books