It was to ward away "ill thoughts" while her husband had cancer that Margaret Drabble took to doing jigsaws. A self-confessed untidy writer, Drabble finds succour in them, and the escape they offer from the messiness and ragged edges of human life, where broken ties cannot easily be mended, and missing pieces refuse to be filled.
What began as a history of the jigsaw ended up as a hybrid, spiralling off in other directions, particularly into the past. The past is a dangerous place, especially if you are the sister of AS Byatt, holds Drabble: "Writers are territorial, and they resent intruders." Even so, she reclaims a patch of her past, writing about her Aunt Phyl, with whom she passed long hours piecing together jigsaws.
The personal and the historical interlock. The book's nuggets include the information that the world's hardest jigsaw is of a Jackson Pollock painting. Drabble's "occupational therapy", to stave off the depression that afflicted her parents and threatens her, throws poignant light on the difficult jigsaw of human life – and on how to shed harmful thought patterns and reassemble them into something less destructive.