The Life of Stuff

When did tidying become a thing? Marie Kondo’s current series on Netflix is strange but compelling; a radiantly happy-seeming elf trots into people’s messy homes and transforms them. Or rather, after she’s skipped about a bit talking about sparking joy, she leaves them to it, and it’s a hell of a lot of work.

Just how much is clear in Susannah Walker’s book ‘The Life of Stuff’ (Doubleday £14.99), published last year. Walker’s account of dealing with her deceased mother’s hoarded house is filled with insight and empathy as she unpicks their troubled relationship. In her attempts to find out why her mother’s pristine home was gradually swamped by filth and junk she faces tough questions about her own attitude to possessions. Was there something she could have done to protect and support the mother whom she found so maddening? And is there anything, buried deep in the clutter, that will provide a clue to the cause?

It’s a desperately sad story of a life allowed to go to waste, and a family whose hold on gentility is fragile. Along the way Walker has fascinating things to say about why this problem is so intractable and widespread. What are museums, she says provocatively, but vast hoards of stuff we can’t bear to get rid of? If a person’s belongings are disposed of, are we disposing of them too? If our things could speak, what would they say about us, and would we want to listen?

Walker does find an immensely sad little token in the rubble that says so much about her family’s trauma, and her way of putting it to rest is touching. This is a wonderfully compassionate and thought-provoking read. Once you’ve done tidying.

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