“I don’t write for catharsis; I have to write to understand,” author Joan Didion said during a promotion of her new memoir, Blue Nights, in late 2011.

What is it then that she set out to understand when she began to write about the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who was only 39 years of age? The opinion that may be held by many is that this book is solely about a mother’s grieving for her lost daughter–but this would be a mistaken view. Because we are aware that the loss of a loved one is inevitable, it’s easy to succumb to the vague impression that after the fact our sorrow will decline within months. Didion refines this misguided banality; unfortunate events in Quintana’s life keep her asking how she could have or not have done certain things, meanwhile having to acknowledge the irreversible nature of all these events and of time overall.

The title Blue Nights is explained in the first chapter to refer to the transitioning twilight during the summer solstice, a transition that gradually produces a darker shade of blue, and a sign that the day is coming to a close. “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning,” Didion says. As she writes this book in 2010, five years after her daughter’s death, she toils with questions pertaining to her regrets as a mother and whether she had missed the signs of the blue nights darkening. Either way, at age 77, the author cannot deny her frailty; what she describes as “maintaining momentum” is part of the inevitability–in this case having to do with aging–that the blue nights can always promise.

Regardless of the ghastly topic of losing one’s child, Didion manages a chilling style that is gripping in its honesty. Though both equally remarkable pieces of writing, the book’s predecessor, The Year of Magical Thinking, differs in the haunting aspect. Published in 2005, this memoir on the passing of the author’s husband and also acclaimed novelist, John Gregory Dunne, also differs in terms of theme. The “magical thinking” refers to the diluted actions and thinking of the widow who believes her husband might come back; not so such in a literal sense, but like a child who thinks it’s a matter of strong hope. In Blue Nights, it seems Didion has abandoned her magical thinking, but her curiosity and insightful tendency to question and interpret past obscurities still remains.

It is horrible to see oneself die without children. Napoléon Bonaparte said that.
What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripides said that.
When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
I said that.

In this passage, Didion presents the worst of two worlds pertaining to her situation while she answers the question put to herself, “…when we talk about our children what are we saying?” However, she admittedly can’t claim to fully believe her answer, but throughout the book she equates these lines to past events in order to reach some sort of flawless worldview, which she feels she lacked before. Understanding is her utmost priority. “The question of self-pity” no longer plays a major part in Blue Nights, but dealing with losing a loved one, a part of your life, and being condemned to keep living still remains the author’s focus and struggle. As long as she has her memories, it’s the life she’s prisoner to:

“‘You have your wonderful memories,’ people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”