Things I Learned From Falling, by Claire Nelson. Hachette. $29.99.
On a scorching, still day in Joshua Tree Park, California, Kiwi Claire Nelson sets out on a solo hike. What she doesn't know as she begins walking on the desert trail is that this hike will lead to a devastating, life-changing event.
Nelson endures a terrifying fall of 30 ft onto boulders that leave her pelvis shattered, and her unable to walk. She is hidden in a hole with towering rocks on every side, away from the traffic of the trail, with no phone reception and no way to contact anyone. Worse, her loner lifestyle, built from a deep fear of dependency, means that there's a chance no one will even know she's missing until it's too late. Instead, Nelson is trapped with only her thoughts to support her, desperately hoping for rescue before the searing temperatures and dehydration claim her life.
The spoiler here is self-explanatory - Nelson is clearly alive, given she has written this gripping memoir of her accident and all that led up to it. But despite being aware of this fact, Nelson's masterful writing places the reader directly into the scene and inside her mind as she grapples with her mortality in this horror situation.
The narrative of Things I Learned From Falling is split across different timelines - the agonising four days that Nelson spends lost in the desert, trying every act of resourcefulness she can conjure to stay alive, and flashbacks to the life she fled in London as a journalist, that caused her to sink into a depression that eventually forced her to take to the road in search of a better life.
These transitions are managed beautifully by Nelson, who weaves the two narratives together to paint a compelling and complex picture of the layers of expectation, anxiety and poor mental health that created the sense of isolation that she both craved, and that could have led to her demise.
More than just a straightforward adventure memoir, Things I Learned From Falling recalls Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed - books that examine the role that nature and isolation play in constructing our identities, and how emotional pain manifests into the physical spaces we inhabit. Whilst occasionally Nelson's reflections on her busy life in London feel rushed or incomplete, perhaps this is simply due to the richness of her descriptions of travel, hiking, and her experiences of the accident, which contrast so strongly with the less developed aspects of the narrative.
This is a gripping read, one that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page, and that - despite the grave injuries Nelson suffered - may compel you to find those hiking boots and hit a trail to bask in the glory of the nature.
- Zoya Patel is a Canberra author.