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Kate Holden, The Romantic: Italian nights and days

January 1, 2011

kate Holden, The Romantic book cover

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)


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.

Kate Holden
The romantic: Italian nights and days
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656743

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2011 03:19

    How interesting to write a memoir in the third person. Did it achieve the effect she wanted? And does it work overall?

    • January 1, 2011 09:21

      Yes, I think it does achieve that effect pretty well. You could forget it’s memoir – and I think that’s the effect she wanted. Does it work overall? I guess that depends on what you mean by “work” but I do think she sustains the third person narrative well. I believe she’s doing a lot of journalistic writing at present. I’d like to see fiction from her – but perhaps in new ground rather than the ground covered by her two memoirs.

      Oh, and Happy New Year Stefanie. May there be many great books in 2011 for you – and a degree!

      • January 2, 2011 03:41

        Thanks for so completely answering my question! And thanks for the good wishes too! I hope 2011 brings you many hours of good reading and lots of Austen happiness 🙂

  2. January 1, 2011 12:53

    Hmmm… regardless of whether she’s written it in the third person or not, it sounds a bit too heavy on the navel gazing to me. Or is that too harsh?

    • January 1, 2011 13:25

      It is a bit of a matter of taste but it is a bit heavy on navel-gazing/the going-round-in-circles-of-it for me. I’ve looked at a few reviews and they vary from those who love it to those who feel that the self-analysis/navel-gazing is a little too much. She’s a good writer so there’s certainly that, but the rest depends largely I think on where you are in your own life and whether she has anything to say to you. Does that clarify things?

  3. January 1, 2011 13:44

    It’s amazing to think how different one person’s life can be from another’s. As a young woman in my early twenties, I can’t imagine the life Holden has led. Hmm, perhaps that means I should read her memoirs, so that I *can* imagine it?

    • January 1, 2011 14:59

      Well, the question is whether you want to imagine it — or whether there’s some other twenty-something lifestyle you’d prefer to imagine.

  4. January 1, 2011 15:35

    I am not convinced that I like the idea of a memoir written in third person to be honest, but I will keep an eye out for this author after this interesting review

    • January 1, 2011 16:25

      Do keep an eye out for her, Becky … but, it’s worth checking out the style of this one I think. I’m always intrigued when someone tries something a little different. Some years ago I read the opposite – a biography written in the first person! It’s called Autobiography of my mother, and is by Meg Stewart who tells her mother’s story by writing in her mother’s voice. Her mother was the Australian artist Margaret Coen and her father, the poet, Douglas Stewart. It was a great read …

  5. residentjudge permalink
    January 2, 2011 16:54

    I haven’t read this, even though I loved “In My Skin”, have enjoyed hearing her speak at our local library, and look forward each fortnight to her column in The Age. She seems such an intelligent young woman of such integrity, and I’m uncomfortable with her need to expose herself with a second book of this type. So I’ve consciously chosen NOT to read it, and I will pounce on her next book- whenever she chooses to write it- that can move beyond this.

    • January 2, 2011 20:56

      I think that’s a fair enough decision RJ … I must check out some of her Age articles as you’re not the first one to say you enjoy them.

  6. January 12, 2011 00:55

    Like residentjudge said, her fortnightly columns are fantastic. She picks little moments in life and writes so exquisitely about them in both a serious, thoughtful and, at the same time, jokingly manner! I suppose I might have been expecting more of today’s ‘Kate’ and have forgotten the 2003 ‘Kate’ when I read The Romantic. Still, despite my disappointment in the book, she is one amazing writer.

    • January 12, 2011 08:58

      Thanks Mae … clearly I am missing something by not reading her columns. I’ll see if any of them are available on-line. I certainly agree with you that she can write.

  7. El Prod permalink
    January 13, 2011 17:59

    Holden’s books aren’t about “lifestyle”, though they necessarily pay attention to its breadth and detail.

    Her books -so far – are about character: tested, risked, emerging.

    • January 13, 2011 21:34

      Fair enough — though I was using the term “lifestyle” broadly and not in the more narrow superficial sense. But, you are right, they certainly are about character.

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