Caught by the River

An Elemental Force

Kirsteen McNish | 8th September 2022

Just published in paperback by Icon Books, Kat Lister’s ‘The Elements: A Widowhood’ is not a pallid story of survival, writes Kirsteen McNish, but an account of things that oscillate.

 At 35 years old, Kat Lister started to piece her life back together from the ashes and aligned herself to the elements to re-shape and re-imagine how things might look when peering down a chasm of loss. Setting sail stuttering into the unknown after her husband died after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, she finds herself living a totally different trajectory to the one she had imagined for herself and her relationship. How many of us even think further than tomorrow, next week, the next year? Facing a maelstrom of unexpected dawning chaos, one’s life can become a radical act of will — to emerge every morning out of slumber into a gaping reality that no one could have prepared you for. The sticky tar days. The days that seem to have no end. The whys and what ifs. The split second when you wake up in the morning and you forget it has happened. Then the rebuilding. Fire, Water, Earth and Air here are the weathervanes Lister chooses to guide her and inhabit.

The Elements is a lyrical, hypnotic, rich, beautifully composed, intricate and delicate tapestry of a book. But it is also subversive. From the outset Lister was determined to have the word Widowhood’ emblazoned across the cover as a sub-heading; a brave step for both an author and a publishing house. Much easier not to confront the reader and merely artfully allude to something in a shy side-glance on the cover. This book is not presumptuous about the highly individual nature of loss, and its author does not attempt to tick the non-sequential Kubler-Ross stages off like a crude shopping list. Instead, Lister flies in the face of presumptions and etched-in expectations of gender, and refuses to be sacrificed on the altar of ‘widowhood’ — by doing so also freeing the reader’s expectations; she is not presuming to be a voice for anyone other than herself, and so for those readers who may have experienced loss themselves, it’s sweet relief not to be lumped into one swirling mass of generalisation from the outset, allowing the text to both breathe and soar. 

Aside from being beautifully observant, self-reflective, poetic, and delicately woven, it is written by someone who, despite everything she encounters, has an ache to absorb as much as she can, whether that’s voraciously reading texts or travelling in her quest to keeping looking outward; she throws up often, doesn’t sleep, dances, fucks, retreats, and starts again. By doing this she allows herself to surrender to something bigger than herself. The Elements is not a pallid story of survival, it’s an account of things that oscillate, and reflects the world around and beyond us; 

Grief isn’t a one-dimensional experience, but an oscillating process that mirrors the natural cycles we all learned about in biology class, the repeating patterns that can be found almost everywhere in our natural world…Spirals, waves, tessellations, symmetry, like the expanding universe around us we are a symphony of restless change.

Let’s be candid. Sharing perspectives on the very thing that most of us do not want to address — death, grief, caring, and failure of the body to align with one’s will — is the bow and arrow of this biographical account. One gets the real raw deal here, not an account which is neatly sewn up into palatable morsels — it lives and breathes organically and undulates as Lister works out how to forge a pathway ahead of her. She somehow also manages to both embrace her contradictions and be brutally honest — she refuses to fulfil the noble, benign or old-as-the-hills passive depiction of a woman bereaved, and by doing so reclaims herself; is always resolutely her own person caught between shifting seismic plates of a personal earthquake. Life after loss, one feels for Lister, is a process of experimentation; testing the boundaries, regaining trust, self-respect and the ability to skip across quicksand.  She is also very aware that by doing this she is often in conflict with herself, playing a role to deal, to preserve some control, when everything is in freefall. This account is complex, devastating, but also uplifting because as a reader we can somehow walk with her, not least because she is acutely aware of the sensory and is able to subtly convey micro-emotions as multifaceted as rock strata or ridges in one’s fingerprints. 

She explores sex and self-pleasuring once her libido finally gallops home (“the wanking chapter” as she deadpanned at a recent festival event), and the highs and lows of hooking up then checking out — desirous of human connection and yet still aware she is at times a cork that’s bobbing in the ocean. But however poignant the accounts, there is always a deep humour and self-awareness. She also throws a light on, nay flies a flag, for what in essence it is to be a “carer”, which is something that isn’t much talked about in literature, and one wonders why, as one in four of us will care for someone we love in our lifetimes, won’t we then feel a need to be acknowledged without pity but with respect? I came away feeling more than ever that this is a writer who wishes to bring visibility to those whose stories are often kept in the shadows and should be seen rather than pigeonholed or marginalised. She emblazons a kind of graffiti that is hard to scrub off;

On the morning of my husband’s funeral, I put on crimson lipstick, and zipped my feet into a pair of ruby red boots, sartorial choices that subconsciously sparred with my new status. Yes, they said, I had chosen to be a 30-year-old bride, but I hadn’t asked to be this 35 year old widow.

Lister’s visceral prose reaches its most confrontational as her body is turned inside out and upside down as she and her partner go through IVF, and relentless hospital appointments, during his prognosis — a searing holding of the flame. The medicalisation of her body can make the reader wince, but never do we feel she is admonishing the reader in these insights. Lister is not trying to be an everyman, but rather she is opening a door — allowing the reader to step into someone else’s frame, and letting the light rush through the cracks, bringing forth strip-light illumination;

It’s hard to do even now, to stand on the charred ground and look down. I’m giving it a go for the sake of the story, but I’m not sure it’s possible to rake over the past and examine what happened without neatening it a little or smoothing over the rough surface in some way. I can squish down the main details into a couple of paragraphs, but it doesn’t give you the messy bits I have tried to block out, and it is the messy bits I need to confront. 

In a world of social media echo chambers and deftly swerving certain subjects (unless fictional accounts that are perhaps acceptably distanced enough for the reader or viewer) this is a truly refreshing read. Lister too kicks against allowing her partner’s memory to disintegrate into the two-dimensional, and — something we might all wish for in the event of our own lives being reflected upon — her partner Pat is both honoured and depicted in rich detail enough to get a real sense of who he was; his humour, pragmatism, positive outlook and intellect allowing his imprint to hover long after I closed the final pages. In one passage the writer relays an image of one her partner’s legs slightly raised before he spins on a dancefloor, which conjured up such a strong scene I felt I was there at a pub table, surrounded by the smell of beer, the night outside — and was taken apart. That a real person is depicted and not merely a chain of anecdotes blurred by the fog of time is a kind of sorcery in itself;

When I talk of my husband, I often speak of disparate worlds. Mine is inside time, his is supertemporal. I continue to age whilst my husband stays fixed in a past I am drifting further away from with every sentence that I type. And yet, like those luminous balls of plasma in the sky, we are still connected together, for all time is cyclical. I hold the elements within me.

Lister works to inhabit the dissociative experiences common with trauma and instead chooses connect actively with her experiences, to inhabit them and connect with her body, from the slaps she administers to herself upon first hearing the prognosis from her partner down the phone, to re-finding herself sometime after his death sexually and sensually. In her honesty and frankness she is comet-like and blazes a trail.

There is so much tenderness in this book too; a paean to the things we grasp around for to steady us in the haar. Passages that discuss retrieving items from a plastic bag (such as a shaving cream or half-used deodorant) and placing them back in her bathroom, the curve of her partner’s fingers having left their invisible imprint, leaves a deep and familiar impression. (I will never forget seeing the shoe of my late sister on its side on her living room carpet and how I felt that it was somehow waiting for her like a fly trapped in amber). I cannot also help but think of the artist Alison Watt’s exhibition A Portrait Without Likeness and how these held or adorned objects separated out from the portrait wearer (a feather or a rose for instance) take on their own new meaning and yet still reflect the strange dance between permanence and transience.

There is much to say about the depths of this book, that lingers on long after in the ether, and I admit I cannot fully do it justice in all its kaleidoscopic glory. But to read this book one feels both seen and like the seer ; the most unusual of portholes, and one that allows us to fall and rise between the seabed and the distant shimmering horizon. To call this a book on bereavement or for the bereaved is far too reductive — there is somehow a part of all of us all lingering, somewhere, in The Elements.


‘The Elements: A Widowhood’ is out now in paperback.

Kat Lister will be in conversation with author and broadcaster Jude Rogers on 13th September at The Social, London. More information and tickets here.