A memoir of living and dying – and flying

An unforgettable and moving insight into loss, hope and starting again, aided by the incredible healing power of nature and a community of unexpected angels, for fans of Phosphoresence by Julia Baird.

After I swim, I watch an osprey hanging in mid-air. It looks like pure pleasure, suspended, its wings barely beating. If those who came before really do dissolve and dissipate, and if their cells really are all around us, then that bird is held there by Mum and Peter and my grandmother Molly and Ning and Grandpa and billions of others of the long-dead. The osprey, on its updraft, is kept aloft by absences. Perhaps I am too.

When her husband of nearly thirty years doesn’t answer his phone, Ailsa Piper knows something is wrong. She calls their neighbour to ask him to check. Minutes later, he rings back. ‘Oh, Ailsa. I’m so sorry,’ he says. Five words to change a life…

Wanting to flee her shattered world in Melbourne, Ailsa migrates north. She rejects all advice, trusting a Sydney real estate agent to find her a nest – and he does, in a sunlight-filled haven. Soon, the harbour works its way into her days. She learns to swim. She walks, up to the lighthouse and along sandstone cliffs, meeting the locals: winter swimmers, shoreline philosophers, and others, like her, hiding sorrow in plain sight.

But we never leave our pasts behind. Ailsa is drawn back to the south, and even farther back, to the aqua waters of the west. Home, it would seem, is not just one place …

For Life is a testament to the healing power of the natural world, a celebration of renewal and wonder, and an unflinching look at grief. It calls us to bear witness to death, and perhaps even embrace it as part of life’s raucous cacophony. Above all, For Life is a beacon of hope.

‘Finely wrought, and exquisitely told, Ailsa Piper’s memoir describes the art of moving forward, even in the face of unbearable loss. For Life is, in the end, a celebration – of love, of nature, of language itself. I loved it for about a million reasons, often through a veil of tears.’ Sofie Laguna, author of Infinite Splendours

‘A beautiful, courageous and unflinching testament to life. To love shadowed by loss. To the howl of impermanence salved by beauty and the interconnectedness of all things. A book of hope and humanity.’ Sarah Winman, author of Still Life

‘In this exploration – fossick, ramble, dance, even romp – in search of good ways to live on alone after losing a husband whose loss has laid waste to her, Ailsa Piper’s many-sided humanity flowers and shines. It is not a dark book, it is a cornflower-blue and sun-filled book looking death, which is always hovering, straight in the eye.’ Robert Dessaix, author of What Days Are For

‘If it takes a community to raise a child, Ailsa Piper shows us that it also takes a community to draw a person away from the tilting world of sudden grief to find a new accommodation with life. One beat-perfect scene made me gasp with the hard question it asks and the even gutsier answer it provides. Filled with Piper’s characteristic warmth and intelligence, For Life is also a superbly drawn portrait of a place and the precious everyday doings of the natural world. A beautifully put-together story told with skill, candour – and love.’ Vicki Hastrich, author of Night Fishing

‘A deeply companionable read. Quiet, profound and full of wonderment.’ Hannie Rayson, author of Hello Beautiful

‘Ailsa Piper’s superpower is noticing, paying meticulous attention to the exquisite minutiae of daily life – the gifted writer’s greatest tool. In this raw yet delicate memoir, Ailsa’s poetic sensibilities elevate these small things – seahorses, birds in fight, flowers, the little still lifes she curates around her home, the foibles and nobility of her fellow humans – to art. There is wisdom and poetry and a sense of the sacred here in her rich evocations of her father’s poignant final chapter, a rendering of COVID lockdowns that almost makes one nostalgic for its deprivations and oddities, her ardent love and heart-wrenching grief for a life partner gone too soon, whom we come to love too. She casts a spell that leaves the reader incapable of un-noticing the truth; that life is speaking to us in every moment. For Life evokes stillness, clarity, appreciation. It left me more attentive to life, its beauty and challenges, my own idiosyncrasies, the delicacy of love. What a gift.’ Tim Baker, author of Patting The Shark

Photo by Nicholas Coghlan