A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, however you are reading this blog post, stop and take a look around you. Look at all the ways the light gets in. Whether you’re reading this at night by the light of a screen, or in a bright, sunlit room, there is light.
Now imagine that you absolutely have to block out every source of light, right down to the tiniest glint. Curtains and even blackout blinds aren’t enough because light has a way of sneaking through cracks and round edges. No, you will have to tape up the windows too. All electric lights off, obviously. No screens – they are the worst. Is that a sliver of light sneaking under the door? Make sure the lights are off outside, and block out the bottom of the door just to make sure. And cover your body, not just in something light and flimsy, but in layers: long skirt over trousers, long sleeves, possibly even gloves too.
When Anna Lyndsey is in the midst of the worst of her unusual and extreme attacks of light sensitivity, this is how she must live. The tiniest beam of light will burn her skin and cause her agonizing pain. When her condition is at its height, she must avoid all light, everywhere. She stays in her blacked out room, listening to audio books, trying to do what exercise she can manage, and making up word games in her head.
It wasn’t always like this. She was in her thirties, doing a civil service job she loved, and generally enjoying her life. Then she started noticing a burning sensation in her face if she sat in front of the computer for too long. It gradually got worse, and her doctor recommended she take some time off. It was probably stress-related, she needed a break. So she did take a holiday, off to a remote part of the Northumbrian coast. No computers, no phones (no signal there anyway), no modern life distraction at all. There wasn’t even a television. Her skin still burned. It must be the light.
What follows is the story of the battle to diagnosis (it’s hard to attend hospital appointments when the sunlight hurts you), the trial and error needed to find what relieved the symptoms, and the effect it had on the brand new relationship Anna was just forming with Pete. Sometimes she has periods of a kind of remission. Daylight is still too much, but sometimes she can bear to leave the house around dusk and walk for a while round the garden, or in places not brightly lit by streetlamps. Sometimes she can spend a little time downstairs, eating dinner with Pete, the room dully lit by a 25 watt lamp hidden behind the television. Pete’s major hobby is landscape photography, and sometimes she is able to look through his latest photographs on the tiny screen of his digital camera, her window to the outside world she has been unable to experience herself.
Lyndsey has been, and still is on, a hard road. There is nothing like being effectively imprisoned in a black room for much of your day to find out who your real friends are. Who still telephones, and who makes the occasional visit to sit in the room and play word games with her. Well, the numbers sadly dwindle. She admits she has contemplated suicide, though loves Pete and her family too much to put them through that agony. There are insights, too, into how Pete copes with a partner who can never really go anywhere with him, and with whom he cannot start a family. And her mother, bustling in and out and keeping up a chipper face, while also looking for increasingly unlikely remedies (psychic distance healers, anyone?). But mainly, it is about a woman living in the dark.
It felt fitting that I listened to the unabridged audio book of Girl in the Dark. When audio books have become the main form of entertainment for this woman who was, in her life before a voracious reader, it seemed right that her story came to me through the same medium. If nothing else, Lyndsey’s experience has broadened her literary horizons. She has developed a taste for listening to SAS survival thrillers, and now feels fully equipped to survive in the forest, though she admits with self-deprecating humour that she is probably the last person alive that would find herself in a rainforest anytime soon. There are only two authors she won’t listen to: James Patterson (too gory) and Miss Read (too twee).
Girl in the Dark is an extraordinary story. Against all odds, it is actually quite uplifting, showing that even when life throws horrific things at you, there are still small ways to make it bearable – even enjoyable. There is light in even the darkest places.
Anna Lyndsey: Girl in the Dark (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) Hardback RRP 16.99. Also available in eBook and audio book.