How To Be Alone by Heather Nolan

Reviewed by Nina Wolf

Heather Nolan is an author, poet, and knitwear designer from St. John’s, Newfoundland. How to Be Alone follows in the footsteps of their debut book of poems, Land of the Rock: Talamh an Carraig, “a narrative of someone seeking a sense of belonging in a lost ancestral culture” (according to its Goodreads page.) How to Be Alone carries a similar tune of searching for belonging. Goose Lane Editions published the 120-page book of poetic novellas; you can get your copy here:

The book is separated into two parts, each following a different protagonist living in Montreal. However, the focus shifts from belonging in a physical place to belonging in society. Here, Nolan examines the infinite gap between one person and the next.
Book One, “How to Be Alone on Boulevard Saint-Laurent,” focuses on an unnamed woman working at a restaurant and examines the divide between strangers and friends while grappling with the trauma and derailment of experiencing sexual assault. Through bursts of consciousness that read as a diary, Nolan tells us the story of loss. She loses a friend, a job, and agency over her body. All while aching for a moment of connection with someone, anyone. Nolan perfectly encapsulates the awkward, messy, and downright ugly. No sexy smeared eyeliner while she lounges in a chaise with a rosé in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The protagonist’s loneliness is raw and infuriating, the pain is heartbreaking, and the sorrow confusing. I caught myself chastising or cooing at the woman on those pages as if I were talking with a friend or a sister. I wanted to tell her to drink less and call her friends more, but I’m guessing that was Nolan’s intention. As readers, we are just as separated from our main character as she feels from everyone.

While book one showcases how challenging it can be to connect with the world, the second part of How to Be Alone is a separate narrative that tells us how insurmountable connecting with oneself can be. “How to Be Alone on Rue Sainte-Catherine” follows Levi Adler as he begins his final year of undergrad and grapples with his sexuality. No amount of rainbows and pride stickers makes coming out easy. As a queer person, I often feel it’s expected of me to stand in front of others, bare myself completely, and say, “This is me.” To take on the mortifying ordeal of being known but also to do all the work to make myself digestible for the listener. Nolan personifies this struggle of getting to know oneself, followed by having to introduce this new version of the self to others, through Levi. What if you don’t know yourself well enough yet? What if you don’t have the words to encapsulate yourself neatly enough for others to immediately understand who you are? Nolan graciously provides us with a suggestion on how to engage with the world and find our place in it. According to them, the solution lies in answering three questions: Who are you? What do you want? What do you stand for? These aren’t easy questions to answer and they shouldn’t be; but the effort it takes to get to the bottom of them ends up paving the road to self-discovery. It forces us out of the closet and into the world to explore all its crevices in search of gold.

How to Be Alone took my breath away, not just with its beautiful imagery and compelling storytelling, but with how it made me care even after I put the book down and sat alone in my apartment. Isn’t that the core of being human? Becoming invested in the stories of people you’ve never met, wishing them the best, and hoping they make it through? According to John Koenig’s the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, sonder is the realization that each random passerby lives a vivid and complex life. Yet there’s no word for reaching out to those random individuals and being unable to touch them, your atoms never quite meeting theirs. Nolan might agree that we need a word for sitting in a crowded room yet feeling detached from everyone. Loneliness doesn’t quite cut it. How can you be lonely and surrounded by people? This novella made me realize that most of us just need to get better at being alone.

Nina Wolf is an actor, writer, and amateur photographer based in St. John’s.