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The First Time I Thought I Was Dying

‘If my thoughts had a genre, it would be body horror.’

So opens The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, the debut essay collection from Geelong-based writer, artist and photographer, Sarah Walker. What follows is an exploration of what it means to inhabit a human body, and the suspicion, curiosity and awe with which we regard it.

Walker’s essays are especially concerned with what it feels like to inhabit a feminine body. The book’s opener, ‘Healing Brush’, tracks Walker’s experience with an eating disorder, and the voluptuous joy of gorging oneself on food and sex and other sensual delights afterwards. ‘Stage Directions’ describes how we navigate consent around what is done to our bodies and how, especially in the world of theatre and performance, where boundaries can sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of ‘good art’. Other essays speak to the more general experience of having a body, and the horrors, pleasures and quirks they are capable of: ‘Yes Yes No’ effortlessly encapsulates the confusions of sexual desire, while ‘Abject Euphoria’ embraces the natural ickiness of the human body, from picking the sleep glue out of our eyes, to looking into the tissue after we blow our nose. Each essay is its own work of art.

Throughout The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, the body is treated like an alien object. It becomes unpredictable, something that no longer fits into the rhythms of ordinary life. Even the self-portraits that preface each essay are isolated parts of a whole, the body made unfamiliar; feathery stretch marks across a hip, the down of hair on an armpit, the wet trail left by a tear. In doing so, she reimagines it as a site of playful questioning: ‘what would happen if I stopped expecting myself to behave?’ A radical act, because to look at the body as thing of wonder – even when it misbehaves – is to lessen its ability to bring us shame. Walker invites us to enjoy the exquisite freedom that comes from allowing the body to simply exist; to welcome its uncertainties, to lean into its inherent chaos.

Speaking of chaos, there’s a certain meandering quality to Walker’s prose that I really enjoy. She’ll switch between topics within the space of a few paragraphs, but it never feels off-putting or abrupt. In ‘Yes Yes No’, she moves from a discussion about desire, to describing her first share house, to explaining how watching porn has affected the way she behaves during sex. Each shift is a brief tangent, a roundabout way of getting to her next point. It feels a lot like talking with a friend, the writing building on itself in the same organic way as a conversation.

It’s important to mention that Walker takes us to some dark territory in this collection, but readers should rest assured that they are in safe hands; each story is told with care. ‘Inside Out’ gives a dignity and understanding to the practice of self-harm that I’ve never seen before, while the titular essay is an amalgamation of Walker’s experiences with anxiety, panic attacks and grief. These are her memories on the line, and it’s a privilege to be trusted with them.

As a collection of essays written and published during the pandemic, The First Time I Thought I Was Dying manages to speak to the tumultuous past two years without explicitly mentioning COVID-19 – with the exception of ‘Contested Breath’, the final essay, which explores how its early stages interrupted a time of grief. It’s been a period where many of us have struggled to embrace the chaos of the moment, the uncertain nature of living alongside the virus. Not only do Walker’s essays contain the stillness and self-reflection that was a staple of our lockdowns but also the kernel that urges us to lean into the chaos; ‘surrender, just briefly.’

The First Time I Thought I Was Dying is a reckoning with the body. Through her essays, Walker reveals what it means to inhabit the human body, and the wondrous array of chaos and confusion it can hold. It’s the perfect read for fans of Maria Tumarkin and Ellena Savage, and anyone who likes their non-fiction essays dark and introspective.

Melina Bunting is The Book Bird’s guest book reviewer.