Peer Review by ...emily (United States)

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By: Helen Grant

One of the less frequently discussed aspects of death and grief is the mandatory overhauling of one’s interior décor.

I am not just referring to the I’m-absolutely-fine-and-look-I’ve-found-some-lovely-tangerine-emulsion-for-the-downstairs-loo phenomenon, although that is indeed a common manifestation of the idea. It can often be something smaller, like the repositioning of a photograph to the centre of a mantelpiece, or the sudden adoption of lots of cheery bunches of flowers around the room. Or maybe they aren’t cheery bunches of flowers at all. Maybe they are the dismembered limbs of a coffin garland, shedding their eerily wilting petals like some terrible metaphor.

Incidentally, I am currently reorganising my bedroom. In fact, I’m writing this very piece surrounded by the shrapnel and debris of seventeen years of childhood, all in one big pile in the middle of my bedroom carpet. Progress has been sporadic, due to the combined evils of disinclination and distraction, but soon I will be approaching the sorting and binning stages.

Sorting and binning. Coming from somebody who is loath to discard even old French vocabulary tests with doodles on them, these are not easy concepts to get my head around. I have more sentimentality running in my veins than blood cells, and while I would be reluctant to describe myself as the product of capitalism and consumerism, I pin my memories to inanimate objects. How does one go about discerning between rubbish and relic? How can I possibly have the right to look at an ancient, discoloured Barbie doll with a missing foot and deem it – her – extraneous?

I cannot.

Over the past year I have had to endure the carpet of my life being slowly pulled out from under my feet, thread by thread, as if by mice. And almost everything in my bedroom seems to be a keepsake from before.

Here I am, a victim of the human condition: I continue to tell myself that if I keep that pile of History flashcards by my bed, I can stay in the revision era and forestall the exam results day in August. If I save all those old birthday cards I can ignore the fact that we’re all going to different sixth form colleges and will probably never see each other again. If I keep those holiday postcards from my father I can change the fact that he is now happily ensconced in a Bolivian slum, chewing coca leaves and abusing all his friends and relatives, safe in his schizophrenia-induced knowledge that he is the one and only Prophet and holds the key to the Revolution.

If I don’t move that T-shirt my grandparents bought me, vacuum pack it and put it in the loft, I can disregard the fact that since two months ago my grandmother has been in a care-home with brain damage and my grandfather dead.

I’ve tried, and, naturally, I can’t stop or rewind time. It doesn’t work like that. It is like a train whizzing past our platform, destined for elsewhere. We have no control over it at all – but we can stand and watch and enjoy (or resent) the feel of the wind on our cheeks. I can’t change what has happened and I can’t anticipate what is yet to come.

But I can tidy up after it.

Perhaps a lick of paint is in order after all.


I know there's a hanging participle lurking in there, but it's stylistic, I promise!

Message to Readers

This has been a particularly difficult prompt for me, which explains why I only just finished it this evening. I would be extremely grateful for any comments/ ideas/ improvements you have, whether they be about the theme, tone, syntax, word choice etcetera. Thank you :)

Peer Review

I love, love, loved the idea of a person's "interior decor." It's a fresh take on a person's changing perspective and well-being through the passage of time.

I completely related to the sentimental attachment to physical objects. My books especially hold memories of the different stages in my life, and I, too, "loathe to discard" them.

I don't believe there are rules in personal essays--there's no "right" balance between scene and reflection because it comes down to voice and stylistic choices. I thought you balanced it marvelously, though I'm biased because I'm attracted to personal essays with more reflection/description (vs. true narrative/plot). I prefer my personal essays ambiguous, and my fiction anchored in plot--what can I say?:)

The final sentence was a wonderful clincher, but I did feel like the essay ended a bit abruptly. It wasn't a question of length. I think it's because I wanted to see the extended metaphors carried through to the conclusion. We're introduced to two wonderful "story threads"--the interior decor element and sentimental, inanimate object element. The interior decor element is carried throughout the entire narrative, but I would have liked to see more references. The inanimate object element is fully fleshed out in the paragraph where you tell the story of sentimental do-dads. You convey your grief in this paragraph, but in your conclusion, you never give that grief, which is tied to inanimate objects, a satisfying close. I expected your conclusion to include references to the inanimate objects when you talk about your acceptance of time/the past/life. There was a wonderful opportunity for you to talk about metaphorically "packing up" the inanimate objects that symbolize your hurts and burdens. In your words, you can "tidy up" your life by sorting through the tangible manifestations of your grief.

Reviewer Comments

Helen, it was such a treat to read your entry! I love the melancholy that hangs over your reflections and your poetic choice of words. Most importantly, you reveal your vulnerabilities and secret longings, which allows readers to connect on a deeper level. I shared your grief for lost relatives, your yearning for times past, and your clinging hope that by holding fast to souvenirs, you might keep the happy memories associated with them.

I hope my comments will help with your edits, but please let me know if anything was unclear because I have a tendency to be ambiguous. Especially when I'm half-asleep;) I also wanted to mention something about my critiques: I usually point out places that need improvement more than I give praise. So bearing all my criticisms in mind, I want you to know that I think this is a wonderful, intelligent first draft with heaps of potential. The depth in this piece is bottomless, and you are fantastic:) Have a great night, and good luck with the contest, girl!