Review: I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2022)

Blurb

A darkly funny, soul-rending novel of love in an epoch of collapse-one woman’s furious revisiting of family, marriage, work, sex, and motherhood.

Since my baby was born, I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things. a) As much as I ever did. b) Not quite as much now. c) Not so much now. d) Not at all.

Leaving behind her husband and their baby daughter, a writer gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump and a spiraling case of postpartum depression. Her temporary escape from domestic duties and an opportunity to reconnect with old friends mutates into an extended romp away from the confines of marriage and motherhood, and a seemingly bottomless descent into the past.

Deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up, she meets her ghosts at every turn: the first love whose self-destruction still haunts her; her father, a member of the most famous cult in American history; her mother, whose native spark gutters with every passing year. She can’t go back in time to make any of it right, but what exactly is her way forward? Alone in the wilderness, at last she begins to make herself at home in the world.

Bold, tender, and often hilarious, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness reaffirms Watkins as one of the single writers of our time.

Review

Thank you so much to Ana at Quercus for sending me a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This novel had me at the title, and the cover. What’s inside does not disappoint: it is dark, ferocious, absolutely unflinching. There is a strong autofiction vibe, with the protagonist being a writer called Claire Watkins, and autobiographical detail from her life (yes, her father really was a member of the Manson Family) woven into the text. I’ve struggled with autofiction in the past, only because of my nosy nature and my desire to know which bits are true, but I was cured by Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (a novel I loved), which made me realise that trying to separate out the fact from the fiction is kind of missing the point. And isn’t ‘truth’ all relative, anyway? Or something like that.

The central plot point of this novel is deliberately shocking: a woman walks out on her husband and young baby, choosing instead the seeming hedonism of drugs, affairs, rootlessness. It is confronting and defiant, not least in the way that the narrator struggles to feel bad about her choice. She wishes she could be sorry, but she’s not sure she is. For those of us who live loaded with Mum guilt over the smallest parental failings, this borders on revelationary – I thought I would judge her decision, but as the book progresses, I think my feelings tipped more into a secret envy. I could never do what Claire does in this story, but her absolute commitment to following her own path has a certain courage to it – at the very least, it smashes through the patriarchal norms of ‘motherhood’ and what is expected of women once we bear children. It’s fascinating.

The descriptions of the desert and of the various childhood homes that the narrator lives in growing up are wonderfully evocative, and the sections describing her father’s connection to the Manson Family are morbidly interesting. There are also letters written by her mother as a girl – I have to say, I couldn’t quite work out where these fitted in, and their repetitive tone didn’t draw me in as much as the other facets of this remarkable book. However, when it came to Claire’s story, I was all in. Watkins writes with a bare, fierce honesty, almost flaying in its intensity, and I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness is an incredibly powerful novel.

Sparks fly in this book, from passionate sexual encounters to ghosts from the past slamming into the present, to the sheer taboo-busting ferocity of Claire’s search for identity. It’s explosive, original, sometimes tough to read, drilling down right to the core of what it means to exist in this world, at this time. I was worried I wouldn’t find the ending satisfying, but it worked really well for me. I think this book is really important, shining a light on deep, dark, hidden truths, soul-baring in a pure and brave way. If you are a reader who wants their characters to be likeable and relatable, perhaps steer clear, but if you like bold, shattering fiction that makes the world anew, I highly recommend I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness.

I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins is published by riverrun on 20th January 2022 and is available to pre-order here.

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