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In five distinct chapters woven together through a deep sense of nostalgia and a detective-like wistfulness, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits by Duncan Fallowell offers the reader a glimpse into what it means to be (and to search for) those that have been forgotten, either through time or because of their own reclusiveness.
In Fallowell’s first chapter, “Sailing to Gozo,” he introduces us to the ancient Maltese island of Gozo, a place that time has (and most tourists have) forgotten and which has been left alone to develop its own unique characteristics and qualities. Using geography as jumping off point, Fallowell cannily examines the importance of place in the lives of these outsiders.
“The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry,” Fallowell’s second entry, is a chronology of the author’s search for Babsy Pavry, an Indian Parsi socialite who married an English nobleman. Attempting to use her (semi-) socialite birth and married title to climb the social ladder, she was forced out of a loveless marriage and exiled to writing letters to the famous and royal, attempting to garner a place at their social table. Pavry proved a misfit trying to blend. She was outcast by others but saw herself as one of the group. She was always on the outside looking in; even when she was gallivanting with the famous we get a sense that her social successes were merely superficial.
In his third chapter “Waiting for Maruma,” Fallowell takes us to the Isle of Eigg, a 24-square-mile island off the western coast of Scotland with a population of about 65. German New Age artist Marlin Eckhard, known as Maruma, impulsively buys the island after flying over it. With a recent history of bad lairds—the Scottish title for the owner of the main island manor—the people are both skeptical and hopeful that Maruma’s big talk will actually turn into real benefits. The islanders, Fallowell later finds out, would purchase the island for themselves once Maruma’s deal collapsed. They are able to retain their outsider and misfit status.
In the fourth part, “Who was Alastair Graham?”, Fallowell writes of a chance encounter with Alastair Graham, the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Bridesheads Revisited character Sebastian Flyte. Eventually visiting Graham, Fallowell is rebuffed and only later learns of the circumstances surrounding Graham’s exit from Waugh’s life through an archive of letters and family memories by Graham’s niece. Like other sexual “misfits” of his day, Graham was forced into seclusion based on his homosexuality and retained the very real fear of stigmatization.
Fallowell concludes his work with “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” reflecting on the effect the death and funeral of Princess Diana had on the public.Connecting us back to the first chapter on Gozo where a barmaid asks, since he is English, if the author has ever met Diana, Fallowell offers the Princess of Wales as the ultimate misfit: one who was once outcast but was able to overcome that status to become a symbol of power and class, the embodiment of popular acceptance and fame. We are drawn to misfits; we feel as one with them. Through their overcoming of what separates them, it gives hope for all of us.
Each story connects to the others either through a chance encounter, location or person. The chapters are each a manageable length, and Fallowell (first and foremost a travel writer) sprinkles stories of discovery—of Venice, Pompeii, hotels’ histories, etc.—throughout, offering the reader brief leisurely detours before returning to the main story.
Extremely readable, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits works as a travel book, a nonfiction detective story and a self-help exploration of what it means to be a misfit. Fallowell presents a collection accessible on different levels. We the reader feel the author’s anxiety of almost finding his answer or meeting his mark but then falling short or getting there too late. We also understand the role of serendipity in research and life. Often, there is no control over those who enter and exit our lives, those who may have a lasting (or cursory) effect on us. All we can do is soak up such experience.
This book made me want to search my family photo albums, diaries and letters to find a mystery to solve. The whole work has the feeling of a genealogist that starts her research only after all of her elder relatives have died—that feeling not really of nostalgia but of a lost collective experience. Graham’s recollections of Waugh go with him; Babsy’s true personality hidden under her socialite exterior dies with her; Gozo and Eigg feel as if they are on the cusp of progress and development but never realize either. We are finally left with Diana, who did actually overcome her misfit and outcast persona. Fallowell offers that maybe there is hope yet for all misfits and outsiders who strive to find their place in the world.
How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits
By Duncan Fallowell
Terrace Books: A Trade Imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299292409, 236 pp.