Book Review: The Vagabond’s Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

The Vagabond's Breakfast

The Vagabond’s Breakfast is a memoir – a collection of short prose pieces which evoke the confusion of illness and the complexity of memory. Beginning in 2007, shortly after he was diagnosed with hepatic encephalopathy, awaiting news of a potential liver transplant, Richard Gwyn reflects on the years leading up to this moment – years of vagrancy and alcoholism, travelling around Europe, moving from one temporary location to another, with no clear sense of direction or purpose.

The fragmented nature of Gwyn’s experience is reflected in the structure of the book itself, as each short section stands alone, while also fitting jigsaw-like into the whole. The style is reflective but also funny, and deeply honest – the author is clear that he is not a reliable narrator. This section highlights the surreal nature of Gwyn’s illness:

On another occasion, Rhiannon, my fourteen-year-old daughter, discovers me downstairs in the living-room, trying to stuff a large blue alarm clock with bread. I stand there, in an agony of concentration, wedging a doughy ball into the mechanism with my thumb. I am muttering: This happens all the time. At least, this is what my daughter tells me: I have no memory of the event.

This sense of uncertainty continues throughout the recollection of events which led up to Gwyn’s illness, as he describes the fascinating characters that he met in Crete, Spain and other locations, the strange coincidences, the moments of clarity, and the dangerous situations from which he managed to extricate himself, with a continual feeling of unease.

The Vagabond’s Breakfast is also full of literary references, examining the uncanny coincidences where literature and life appear to merge in ways that are extremely unnerving:

I have just finished reading a collection of stories by Roberto Bolaño. They leave me with a strange sensation, as though I had read them before and were simply re-reading, or as if the things that were being described had happened to me personally, in a distantly remembered life. The cover blurb informs me that Bolaño died in 2003, at the age of fifty, while awaiting a liver transplant. I know this already, but as a man of fifty myself, waiting for a liver transplant, the sentence still has a particular resonance.

The recollections in this book are intriguing, frightening, and fascinating in turn, but the tales are told in a wry, ironic tone, recalling moments of laughter and friendship, alongside the alcoholism and despair. The fragmented narrative is disconcerting, but it also adds to the suspense, making this memoir a captivating read.

The Vagabond’s Breakfast is published by Alcemi.