Busy Being Free by Emma Forrest review – from Hollywood glitz to Trump-based celibacy

Unafraid to confront messy contradictions, a second memoir from the author of Your Voice in My Head covers the end of her marriage and ‘tectonic shift’ from LA to north London

In 2011, Emma Forrest published a memoir, Your Voice in My Head, about her experience of mental ill-health. “I became, for a certain audience, the suicidal girl’s suicidal girl,” she writes in the prologue to her follow-up, Busy Being Free. This new book, she is at pains to point out, is in a different register. She is no longer suicidal. In the intervening years she has published novels, written screenplays and directed a movie; still readers who know her only through the first memoir treat her delicately. “Which feels confusing. Can you still be gentle with me if you know my struggles are merely domestic now?”

On the surface, Busy Being Free is about the end of her marriage to actor Ben Mendelsohn, and the tectonic lifestyle shift involved in moving from their LA mansion to an attic flat in north London, then solo parenting her young daughter through a pandemic. But it’s about a great deal more than that. Forrest is examining, with an unflinching eye and a formidable cultural frame of reference (the title comes from Joni Mitchell’s song Cactus Tree), what it means for a woman to find herself alone in her 40s and to redefine herself outside a context of marriage, motherhood and men.

In the aftermath of her break-up, Forrest embraces a voluntary period of celibacy, which she blames on the election of Trump. “Having to look at Donald Trump did not make me want to fuck,” she says, speaking for every woman alive (including, I suspect, Melania). But it becomes clear as the book progresses that Trump is a convenient peg on which to hang this retreat from intimacy. “I took a vow of celibacy for the term of Trump’s presidency. It seemed like a good idea for someone whose life had been guided, thus far, by romantic obsession.”

Early in her new London life, another mother looks around her tiny flat and asks, “How did this happen to you?” Forrest’s patchwork approach to the narrative is a way of giving this question a fuller answer. Moving between past and present, from childhood memories to her honeymoon, from conversations with her daughter to the raging rows of a dying marriage and a newly forged sexual confidence, she gradually builds a picture of the ways in which her romantic impulses have shaped her trajectory. It’s a beguiling form of storytelling, because it’s unpredictable, and it allows her to circle around the catalyst for the ending of her marriage, which only comes into focus late in the book.

In one chapter she reflects on her worst sexual experiences, including several from her time as a precociously talented 16-year-old thrust into the adult world of newspaper journalism that would certainly qualify for #MeToo revision. “When I was a teenager, one man who – and I use my words very carefully here – had sex with me is now dead, and I know him to have been a very bad man, despite what the obituaries said.” But she goes on to say: “The interesting part is that I voluntarily kept seeing him for a few weeks.” One of Forrest’s greatest gifts as a writer – apart from her humour; like its predecessor, Busy Being Free is frequently hilarious – is her instinct for ambiguity. She writes so well about messy lives because she understands the contradictions we are all prone to, though I wonder if there is a generational aspect to this; it’s possible that younger women may not be as relaxed about, say, the blurring of professional and sexual relationships that Forrest regards as largely positive.

To describe a memoir as solipsistic may seem redundant, but Busy Being Free is solipsistic in the best way: that is to say, Forrest is hyper-aware that she is telling her own story. She does not attempt to extrapolate universal meanings or turn her hard-won insights into lessons for other women in similar situations, as many such books often do. “Getting to middle age has been a process of learning, knowing, believing,” she writes. “Now what? Having finished that painstaking excavation, what do you use the next half of your life for?”

She doesn’t offer easy answers; there are none. The choices she makes for herself will no doubt appal some women and inspire others. But the fact that she has written about this midlife excavation with such ferocity and frankness is cause for celebration.

  • Busy Being Free by Emma Forrest is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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