Clover Stroud finds courageous eloquence in the face of death. By Frances Wilson
Clover Stroud was sometimes mistaken for her sister, Nell Gifford, co-founder and ringmistress of Giffords Circus.
Whenever this happened, Stroud would explain that her own performances took place strictly on the page: ‘I am the one without the circus; the one with all the children who writes about the way life feels.’
The Red of My Blood, Stroud’s third memoir, is about how death feels. Or rather, how life feels when death is ‘walking alongside’ life because, on 8th December 2019, Nell Gifford died.
She was 46 and being treated for breast cancer, but had been told the previous month that she had at least five – maybe ten – more years to live. Her death was so unexpected that it was as if, Stroud says, her sister had been killed in an accident.
That's something they both knew all about because when Clover was 16 and Nell was 18, their mother, Charlotte, fell from her horse and was in a coma for two months. In her first book, The Wild Other, Stroud describes how, when Charlotte regained consciousness, she was epileptic, doubly incontinent, unable to walk, feed herself or communicate in any way. She continued in this state for 22 years, until her death in December 2013.
Stroud’s second book, My Wild and Sleepless Nights, is about maternal ambivalence and she spares none of the details. A fearlessly confessional writer, Stroud describes being ‘excited’ by returning to ‘all the difficult and painful things I’ve been through in my life’, and the energy of that excitement pulses through her prose.
Framed around her first year of mourning and written as though in a single breath, The Red of My Blood is not so much raw as bleeding. You will find no platitudes here. This is an account of how a profoundly depressed woman pushed through the days of 2020, ‘slapping cheese down a grater’, ripping clothes from the drum of the washing machine and navigating a sea of Lego, while looking ‘right at the feeling of what the end of existence, the end of a life, really meant’. For once, Stroud says, ‘language failed me’, but there is no sign of that failure in these pages.
Language does more or less what Clover Stroud wants it to do. Like a magician, she puts her grief into a hat and pulls out 70,000 perfect words to describe what it is like when language fails you. To prepare for ‘the face of the pain’ that lies ahead, she compares herself to Sir Galahad or Sir Gawain, leaving the warm fires of Camelot so as to journey through dark forests. ‘I know I will go back into the dark forest, and I will walk there again but, in the knowledge that now I know the way through, I will return to my own life stronger.’
When we have lost something, we try to find it, and this is what Stroud does with Nell. ‘Whereareyou whereareyou whereareyou?’ she asks every moment of every day – the question like an alarm in her brain. She sees her in stars, robins and heart-shaped pebbles. When three black horses wander into her yard, she thinks they too might be her sister.
‘Is there another dimension,’ Stroud asks, ‘where all the dead people go?’ You might pooh-pooh this idea but other dimensions are a reality to Clover Stroud, whose world is filled with such places.
Giffords Circus was itself another dimension, as was Stroud’s idyllic childhood before the accident. Her mother, who was both alive and not alive, also lived in another dimension. ‘She’s not really around, or here, or anywhere,’ as Stroud puts it in The Wild Other.
And, in the depth of her grief, Stroud found a portal to another realm in her phone, where she lost herself messaging strangers for over nine hours a day. The internet is an addiction: while her sister ‘would always be ancient and mystical’, Stroud was ‘becoming dystopian’.
The Red of My Blood is about the impossibility of comprehending death. Accepting the endlessness of absence, Stroud learns, is like learning your times tables: it takes practice and hard work.
New muscles strengthen in the brain; you start to see in the dark. Courageous and utterly compelling, this is a book that will wring you out, wear you down and leave you filled with wonder.