The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood: A review


The Life of the Mind might have been more accurately called The Life of the Uterus because that is the locus of the action in this book. It is particularly focused on the events in the uterus of the protagonist who has suffered a miscarriage and been treated with the drug that induces medical abortions in order to clear the uterus of the debris from the miscarriage. She was told to expect bleeding for about ten days, but weeks later, she is still experiencing the after-effects. Then later her best friend decides to have an abortion. So, yes, uteruses rule in this tale.

But perhaps I am being unfair because the protagonist whose name is Dorothy also thinks a lot so her mind is engaged. She thinks a lot about the miscarriage although she doesn't particularly grieve about it. Mostly she thinks about it because she hasn't told anyone except her partner. She has withheld the information from her best friend, the one who later decides to have an abortion. And she has withheld the information from her therapists, both her first therapist and the second one that she sees to complain about the first one. Second-guessing her actions seems to be second nature with Dorothy. She can't seem to make a decision without reviewing, rethinking, and replaying it in her mind.

Dorothy is an adjunct professor at a private university where she teaches two to four courses per semester including one course called Writing Apocalypse. Her students are encouraged to write about an apocalypse to come. The context for the course seems to be global anxiety perhaps in regard to the environmental crisis or a political crisis or maybe both. It isn't altogether clear. But Dorothy herself seems less concerned with any of that than she is with what she terms "disappointed cynicism, hatred of groups and existential damage that manifests as useless contrarianism and resignation." Her mind focuses on this and her thoughts swirl endlessly and claustrophobically around this center.

As for the novel's plot, there really isn't much of one. The writing is incisive and it moves along at a fair clip, but nothing much happens and there doesn't seem to be any defining moment of truth or crux to it all. Indeed, at one detour point in the narrative, Dorothy goes to an academic conference in Las Vegas. Why? There doesn't seem to be any particular reason for it and it doesn't reveal anything new to the reader. It's just a distraction.

Moreover, a considerable portion of the narrative is spent describing scatological matters and Dorothy's hygiene, or lack of same. The first sentence of the book finds her sitting in a public toilet and musing over the fact that she is still bleeding from her miscarriage after six days. And that sort of sets the tone for what is to follow. Again, why this emphasis? Perhaps the writer did it for its shock value, but it's all a bit disgusting and I couldn't really see that it served any great purpose.  

Disaffected and dissatisfied seem to best describe Dorothy. She leads a rather bleak life but it was hard for me to work up much empathy for her, in spite of the fact that we share a name. Smallwood's writing is fairly stream-of-consciousness in style and the story is undeniably creative, unique even. But I do like books to have a point to them and this one just didn't seem to. Then, again, maybe pointlessness was the point.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars   


  1. This sounds like it was all a bit so/so. From the start of your review, I was like "hmm, curious to see where this goes, unique genre and topic".

    But the fact that it just doesn't really go anywhere is pretty disappointing, I feel.

    I hope your next read will be a tad better :)

  2. Huh, this book would not be for me. I like books that have a point or plot. Just seems strange.

    1. That was pretty much my reaction as well. The writing was sharp and fine but to what end? I couldn't discern the writer's purpose.

  3. Wow, at first glance, this book seems intriguing... The idea of the uterus as a focus for book could make for good reading if done right... But as I continued reading your review of The Life of the Mind, I became less interested in this novel. Stream-of-consciousness and books with no point to them aren't big draws for me in the end.

  4. Yeah, I think it was the feminist aspect of the book that drew me to read it, but I was disappointed that it didn't seem to really "go" anywhere.

  5. This would be a tough read without much plot or point ... I wonder what was the purpose? hmm. It seems a feminist one ... but perhaps wasn't executed well.


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