When Samantha Clark got in touch to tell me about her memoir The Clearing, I was stunned by the beauty of the book’s cover and intrigued by the link between Samantha’s writing and art to the extent that I simply had to feature The Clearing here on Linda’s Book Bag. I’m thrilled that Sam has provided an extract from her book along with a fabulous piece of her artwork for me to share today. My enormous thanks to Sam for a copy of The Clearing in return for an honest review too. I am delighted to share my review of The Clearing alongside Sam’s pieces.
Published by Little Brown, The Clearing is available for purchase in ebook and hardback, with paperback pre-order through the links here. The Clearing will be released in paperback on 4th March 2021.
This house has been a regular presence in my life for as long as I can remember. My heart has sunk a little every time I walk in . . .
Samantha Clark enjoyed a busy career as an artist before returning home to Glasgow to take care of the house that her parents had left behind. Moving from room to room, sifting through the clutter of belongings, reflecting on her mother’s long, sedated years of mental illness and her father’s retreat to the world of amateur radio and model planes, Samantha began to contemplate her inheritance.
A need for creativity and a desire for solitude had sprung up from a childhood shaped by anxiety and confusion. Weaving in the works and lives of others, including celebrated painter Agnes Martin and scientist of dark matter Vera Rubin, The Clearing is a powerful account of what we must do with the things we cannot know.
An Extract from The Clearing by Samantha Clark
There is one room here that I have not entered for a long time. When he retired from his forty-five years as an engineer with the BBC, this room became my father’s retreat and I did not intrude. I take a deep breath and pause, my hand on the doorknob, remembering my recurring dreams of this moment, dreams in which I open the door to find Poppy, the much-loved dog of my teenage years, waiting patiently, starving and forgotten for decades, staggering to her feet to greet me lovingly, dreams from which I waken with a guilty, tender grief that sits upon me all day. Softly, I push, and go in. The chilled air smells of rubber cement and 3-in-1 oil. I tread carefully, sliding over magazines, envelopes and discarded shoes. Nearest the door lie bits of old tents, coils of rope, canoe paddles, oilskins, a canvas rucksack now stiff with mildew. Next to it, propped against the wall, are several cumbersome and mysterious structures of copper pipe, wire and dowelling, over six feet long and half as broad.
Working my way further in I reach my father’s workbenches by the window. As I look around me, the clutter covering every surface begins to differentiate into recognisable objects: a radio transceiver, a Morse key screwed to the benchtop, Bakelite headphones, an ancient, yellowed BBC Micro computer, dog-eared copies of Practical Wireless magazine, padded envelopes spilling electronic components that look like beetles or sweets, enormous valves retrieved from decommissioned TV transmitters, crocodile clips and voltmeters, oscilloscopes and signal generators, batteries of every conceivable shape and size. The carpet by my feet is littered with tiny slivers of balsa wood, drops of solder, bits of plastic insulation stripped from electrical wire. My father’s amateur radio licence is pinned to the wall, showing his call-sign: GM3 DIN. There are two sets of plastic walkie-talkies, the packaging still unopened. Face down on a 70s brown vinyl office chair lies a loudhailer, half-dismembered, spewing wires.
Stacked on the bookshelf are manuals on UHF/VHF radio and building home-made antennae. The titles read Out of Thin Air, Devoted to Low Power Communication. Just so. Everything in this room is devoted to communication. But only at a distance. Only with strangers. While I was busy making my own adult way in the world, and while my mother, folded unreachably inside her illness and drowsy with medication, slept in her chair through decades of television, my father must have sat in here for hours with his headphones on, listening for voices riding carrier signals bounced off the troposphere, ghost voices sizzling through the static, transmitting little himself save a few pips of Morse to distant strangers known only by their call-signs.
The objects propped by the door, constructed from copper pipe, broomsticks and spirals of thick copper wire are, I now realise, home-made antennae. These ramshackle assemblages are, it seems, capable of picking up radio signals from the other side of the world, if conditions are right. With these antennae my father listened to the ether, for messages it might bring him.
I pick up a handheld transceiver from my father’s workbench, black and heavy, with a stubby rubber aerial like one of those early mobile phones, and switch it on. Unexpectedly, its battery still holds some power. The tinny speaker crackles to life then gives off a steady fizz of white noise – cosmic microwave background radiation, a signal emitted uniformly across the universe at the same wavelength, the sound of photons from the Big Bang still cooling after fifteen billion years. I listen for a while, hoping that the soothing and miraculous sound of the beginning of the universe will steady me for the task ahead, but I find myself thinking about electronic voice phenomenon, when the dead are said to be heard speaking to us through the interference, and, spooked, I switch it off again. But I can’t resist a mawkish ‘Bye Dad. Ten four. Over and out,’ as I do. Just in case.
I love this image Sam has shared too. She made it to convey her father’s passion for amateur radio, and it has so much relevance and resonance if you’ve read The Clearing:
Samantha Clark, 2019, gesso, graphite and gouache on pine board.
Having read The Clearing, I keep returning to this image and looking for the qualities of grey, the light between them and the swirl of emotion I have discovered in the book. Each time I do so, there is more to discover.
My Review of The Clearing
I hardly know where to begin to review The Clearing. It is, quite simply, fabulous. The strapline to The Clearing claims it is ‘A memoir of art, family and mental health’ and whilst that is true, Samantha Clark’s writing is so very much more. The Clearing is science and self-discovery. It’s nature in all meanings, alongside nurture and spirituality. It is philosophy and entertainment. It is art, history and travel. In under 200 pages, Samantha Clark has written as multi-layered and beautiful a text as I have ever encountered. I feel privileged to have read it.
It’s difficult to review plot in a memoir, although one would usually expect quite a linear approach. As the title suggests, this is a book predicated on the author clearing out her parents’ home after their death. A literal clearing. And yet it isn’t. As Samantha Clark describes this physical clearing she spellbindingly weaves in her memories, both real and imagined, as well the subjects I’ve mentioned above, blending them with the clearing of her guilt at her relationship with her parents, her mother especially, and she shows just how there is a clearing, a space, in the most unexpected places where both she and her reader can find meaning and peace. Reading The Clearing is just glorious. It’s a kind of literary Japanese kintsugi that transports the reader into a realm of possibility even where there is grief and bleakness.
I found the visual quality of Samantha Clarks descriptions simply thrumming with meaning and emotion. Her attention to detail, her ability to unite the abstract and concrete together into something that is simultaneously ethereal and tangible, I found completely stunning. In The Clearing the invisible souls of the author’s parents, of herself and of humanity at large, fill the pages until the reader feels almost as close to the events she describes as the author herself. Many, many times I found Samantha Clark’s intensely personal writing created passages in The Clearing that expressed what I had indistinctly felt but had never been able to articulate for myself, so that reading this book was a kind of catharsis or clearing for me too.
It is impossible to define The Clearing. It is beautiful, literary and cerebral and yet it is accessible, personal and moving. I found it educational, hypnotic, mesmerising and emotional. I thought The Clearing was sublime and one of the best books I have read this year. Don’t miss it.
About Samantha Clark
Samantha Clark has been a practising visual artist for many years, working across a range of media, including video, installation, drawing, photography and text, and her writing has emerged from this long creative evolution. Sam originally studied Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art, Belgrade Academy of Fine Art and the Slade School of Fine Art (UCL), and has taught at Edinburgh College of Art, Tasmanian School of Art, and the University of the West of Scotland. She has an MA in Values and Environment from the University of Central Lancashire and has published in several academic journals on environmental philosophy and eco-art. She currently teaches at the University of the Highlands and Islands and online, and lives on Orkney.