The romantic, by Kate Holden, is hard to categorise. In an interview with Richard Aedy on ABC Radio’s Life Matters she comments that, despite the success of her memoir In my skin, she was “a little bit uncomfortable with memoir” because it felt a bit “narcissistic”. And so this, her second book, she intended writing as a novel, albeit based heavily on her experiences in Rome. However, as she tells Aedy, her editor told her that most of what she’d written was not fiction, but “life” and so she decided to write it as memoir. So why my opening statement? Well, it’s because this memoir is told in third person.
Who, then, is Kate Holden? Today she is a professional writer living in Melbourne, but she was not always so. In my skin, which I read before my blogging days, is an astonishingly honest chronicle of her twenties when she was a heroin addict and sex worker. The romantic is a sequel of sorts. It tells the story of her year or so in Rome and Naples where she went to further her recovery, to, as she says, find herself. She tells Aedy that she decided on third person to enable her to maintain “critical distance from my own former self” (since the events in the book occurred around 2003) and to give the reader the prerogative of that distance too. Which, I think, is not a bad thing – as this is one very explicit book about, as she says, “the permutations of love, sex and romance”. Sex, though, predominates this threesome, if you get my drift.
Okay, that might be a cheap shot, because Holden is, again, fearlessly honest. The book, told chronologically, is divided into 7 parts, most of them named for a sexual/romantic partner, and some of these partners overlap a little. Throughout the book she alludes to poets – particularly the romantic poets, Byron and Shelley. In fact, each part of the book is introduced with a quote from a poet. In her interview with Aedy, she said that she wanted to be “honest, sincere and authentic like the Romantic poets”. Well, she certainly seems to be that, even if much of what she is being honest about is not exactly “romantic” – unless, that is, we define ongoing self-questioning as “Romantic”.
And here, in a way, is the rub. Holden is not only a fearless writer, she is also a good one. She knows how to string a sentence together, she describes character and evokes place well, and she expresses emotion clearly. But, I’m not sure what the point is for the reader. There is a lot of detail here about relationships – and sex in particular – that is not particularly positive for her. Around the middle of the book she writes:
She wishes to be free, virtuous, brave, joyous. The men around her say she is needy, neurotic, manipulative, disingenuous, hurtful, promiscuous. She knows she is deceptive, duplicitous and cynical. Somewhere in all of this is a portrait. She thinks this; and buries her face in the pillow.
This sort of self-analysis is the flavour of the book so that, in the end, it feels more like something that is therapeutic for her than enlightening for the reader.
The seventh part of the book – a short one named Kate – is introduced by the following lines from Byron:
I am not now
That which I have been.
I certainly hope so because the Kate in this book has, by the end, still not quite found herself. However, her interview with Richard Aedy in 2010 reveals a composed, confident and articulate woman. I look forward to seeing what this woman produces next.
The romantic: Italian nights and days
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)