“The Dead Ladies Project” by Jessa Crispin

“The Dead Ladies Project” opens with the author convincing police officers that she won’t commit suicide and will seek help. She sieves her life down to two suitcases and leaves for Europe in search of her dead ladies: expats from different times and places. In her quest, she stays in Berlin, Trieste, Sarajevo, Galway, Lausanne… among other cities.

“The Dead Ladies Project” cover art

From her travels, her confrontation with these dead people and her introspection, lessons emerge on how to be in the world and how to relate to it and how to relate to the self as well – “être au monde” as the French expression combining the three says.

The book is very much a tale of solo travel. In each city, she establishes a new temporary dwelling, new routines, overcomes hardships, meets people and describes the atmosphere in beautiful prose.

From Trieste on, street scenes come hurtling through her consciousness, her descriptions become breathless enumerations. In the midst of these momentous series of observations, there are always bitter-sweet gems of biting humour which never fail to connect with the curmudgeon in me.

She addresses darker moments with the same grace. Hardships of solo travel are often difficult to bear: making all the decisions and arrangements, schlepping luggage, feeling OK. She writes, for example, she wishes for a companion in her adventures: an Isabel to her Richard Francis Burton.

Reading “The Dead Ladies Project” provides literary discoveries on each page. Numerous authors, all of which should be more widely known, make appearances. The book might send you on a journey through the world or through a library or both. Her recommended reading section may very well house your next favourite author.

Jessa Crispin’s point-of-view is refreshing. Her prose moves forward with momentum and a quiet resolve, just like she travels through Europe staying in cities weeks at a time.

“The Dead Ladies Project” is a book of the best brand of criticism. Jessa Crispin searches for her dead ladies in their cities, their biographies, their texts and the spaces in-between. In doing so, she effectively questions key elements of our contemporary culture beyond literature. At one point, she questions self-help and the pathologizing of emotions. In her Maud Gonne chapter celebrating magic, spirituality and the power of story, she pokes giant holes into the reigns of materialism and rationalism. Much to this reader’s delight.

This memoir is a very enjoyable read. There are insights in there that spoke to me and my own issues. No doubt it will do the same for you. It gives me hope that one can open their own path. Change. Enter a truce with the self and the world. You should read it too.