The First Time I Thought I Was Dying by Sarah Walker
In the opening chapter of her extraordinary essay collection, Sarah Walker introduces the notion that ‘the out-of-control body can be a radical site’. This statement is the powerful heart of The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, tying each of the eight essays neatly together. These essays thoughtfully unpack the myriad ways our bodies and our minds threaten to unravel us. From body image to phobias, sex and consent to religion, death and grief, Walker considers her subject matter with a clear eye and an unflinching frankness.
These are heavy themes, but readers are safe in Walker’s hands. A gifted essayist, Walker keeps each piece thematically distinct, grounded in personal experience, deepening her observations with research and reflection. Walker has built an incredible career in the Australian art scene as a formally diverse artist, theatre-maker and photographer. The influence of her multidisciplinary background threads through The First Time I Thought I Was Dying, as Walker contemplates timely questions of consent in theatre-making and the ethics of filters and photo-editing software.
With her debut collection, Walker has succeeded in writing something that feels both timeless in its humanity, but also firmly anchored in the current cultural moment. The final essay, ‘Contested Breath’, is an absolute standout – while there will be many essays written about processing the pandemic, Walker’s account of grief and loss in a changing world, compounded by the challenges of planning an ethical funeral in lockdown, will be something I return to again and again to make sense of what we’ve lived through.
The First Time I Thought I Was Dying will appeal to readers of Bri Lee, Ellena Savage and Maria Tumarkin. With sharp perception, dark humour, and poignant vulnerability, Walker has written a powerful essay collection that is both literary and immensely relatable.