She draws on her own extensive diaries and letters to offer a hybrid memoir that is at once a tribute to Samuel and his work, a portrait of a part of London in the grip of accelerated social change, and an account of love, frustration and grief. Perhaps inevitably, these different currents vie with one another for precedence, but Light is keenly aware of these tensions, interrogating her own process and the nature of memoir as history, “a history from inside”: “Memoir weaves its way between what is often called the private and the public, the personal as opposed to the historical… I find these terms far more porous than absolute.”... A Radical Romance is an admirable tribute to a man, a period of rapid change in London, and an unusual marriage, but I wish that the author had stepped out of his shadow more often.
Her narrative is artfully comprised of fragments, scraps of existence: the ‘glow of the polished floorboards with their knots and bumps … the tawny curtains, which hung in heavy, soft folds’. Samuel was diagnosed with cancer just a decade after they married: ‘It came as a shock, I swear. He died.’ Light’s descriptions of her grief and tortuous recovery are deeply moving.
As their relationship nears its tragic close, you sense Light’s reluctance to tell the story of Samuel’s last moments. So much modern memoir writing has a smoothed-over quality, as if it is indeed emotion recollected in tranquillity. That is very much not the case here. The poignancy of Raphael Samuel’s end is only matched in its intensity by Alison Light’s recognition of what she memorably calls ‘the human bargain’: that we give and receive love in exchange for death. This is a book that deserves to be widely read.