Reading is my way of making sense of the world around me.

I’m often drawn to non-fiction titles, particularly memoir, which explore ideas of grief, mental health and recovery. So I was instantly drawn to The Reactor, the debut memoir from Nick Blackburn, which is pitched as ‘a book about grief and repair’ and has a cover quote from Olivia Laing. Blackburn, who is also a therapist specialising in LGBTQ+ issues, wrote the book following the sudden death of his father. At first glance, this book immediately struck a chord. But while I wanted to love The Reactor, it mostly left me feeling disorientated.

“It’s a bit like reading jazz,” said a friend who’d read the book and also felt somewhat confused by its form and premise.

It’s not that the book isn’t good, it’s that I’m left doubting my ability to judge whether I think the book is any good. Whenever I read experimental writing, which isn’t too often, I sometimes begin to doubt my own opinion. But like understanding contemporary art or learning to parallel park, maybe this is just another thing that I’m not smart enough to ‘get’. While I’m game for a challenging read, I’m not the biggest fan of literature that frustrates me and leaves me feeling muddled and, well, a bit daft.

If I’m completely honest (this is a review, after all), the book felt like a slog. I kept putting it down and picking it back up again, determined to form some sort of connection with Blackburn’s experience. But I felt disengaged with the narrative, forced to work far too hard to figure out what the author was trying to tell me.

But perhaps that’s the whole point of the book. After all, grief is messy and fragmented. It’s made up of cloudy recollections and half-thoughts. It is never linear, and it certainly isn’t convenient. It’s also a subject that we don’t tend to discuss in an open forum. In the Western world, death and grieving takes place behind closed doors. So, when it comes around, we’re terribly shocked and aren’t sure how to articulate our trauma. “When did we become unable to talk about grief?” Blackburn asks, a whole page dedicated to that question alone. I’d say that we’ve never been able to talk about grief, but it’s an interesting question to examine nonetheless.

Perhaps Blackburn isn’t seeking to help people understand his experience of grief and repair, rather he is attempting to figure it out for himself by writing about it? If I look at The Reactor through the lens of active grieving, rather than someone who has grieved and is now approaching the subject in retrospect, it starts to make sense. Sort of.

The ReactorFor Blackburn, grief and its aftermath can be compared to a nuclear meltdown. He becomes fascinated with the Chernobyl disaster and often draw parallels between the event and the death of his father. The book’s title not only refers to the nuclear disaster, but also a sort of attempt to find or establish a chain reaction. Each section, each thought, flows into another and Blackburn references philosophy, music, fashion, psychology, art and film throughout. However, he doesn’t deliver anything tangible enough for me to hold on to. 

To me, the book feels like the precursor to something else, something bigger, something that could have been incredibly powerful. In its current form, The Reactor feels like the collective musings of someone trying to figure something out – themselves, life, the grieving process – and reads more like entries in a notebook rather than a fully formed body of work.

But I do like that Blackburn isn’t trying to sell us a solution. He isn’t trying to make us feel better or coddle us through the stages of grief. We are on our own, in the aftermath of a nuclear reaction, just trying to make sense of it all.

‘She lies on the ground and she feels the carpet on the backs of her calves and beneath the palms. And she feels – completely – OK. Which is to say that the workings of grief are unconscious, invisible. Like radiation,’ he writes, and there’s something oddly comforting about that idea.

By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor 


The Reactor by Nick Blackburn is published by Faber and available to buy now.