Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Christina of Memory and You

As with most of my guest posters here, I met Christina through blogging and thus discovered not only another Australian litblogger (there aren’t many of us) but one who is also a writer. Her special interest is memoir and her blog is titled Memory and You. I enjoy (a good) memoir but don’t get to read as many as I’d like, partly because it is not always easy to determine which are the “good” memoirs. And here is where Christina comes in. She has a PhD and a Masters degree in life writing, and is writing memoir herself. She also mentors and teaches other writers, and reviews books for a couple of newspapers. She has thought a lot about memoir and so I’m thrilled she agreed to write a guest post on it for my blog. Thanks Christina …

Memoir as an act of healing

Memoir is a multi-faceted art, and has become the people’s voice. There is even an Australian publisher’s prize for an unpublished memoir, The Finch Memoir Prize, awarded annually. For me, there are two sorts of memoir: the ‘good story’ that tells us how it is to experience life events that have shaped, perhaps damaged, a life; and the remarkable memoir, that fuses the personal with the universal, and takes us on a journey that we remember and want to revisit. Of the first type, there are many, and more being published each year. Of the second type, there are a few, bright stars that shine out in a crowded galaxy.

It is the bright stars that I want to focus on here, and share with you some that I think are, like a good wine, worth adding to your library (or cellar). The three Australian memoirs I want to talk about are: The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement, by Virginia Lloyd (2008); When it Rains, by Maggie Mackellar (2010) and Reaching One Thousand, by Rachel Robertson (2012). These are all memoirs that deal with loss, grief, disability, and with how the subject, the narrator, has been affected  and has survived. There are also some renowned memoirs by overseas writers on this theme, including Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, and Joyce Carole OatesA Widow’s Story.

Some critics say that grief should remain private, unspoken. But memoir can be an act of healing, not only for the writer, but for readers who have suffered and seek stories of others who have survived loss, abuse, betrayal. And even if we have not been so unfortunate, through empathy, we enter another’s pain and are strengthened and illuminated by their sharing. When the personal is fused with the universal, in a memoir that makes us pause, catch our breath, linger and want to return, we share what it means to be human, and finish the book feeling different, more alive.

The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is, as the sub-title tells us, about love and renovation. The author, Virginia Lloyd, lives in an old inner city 19th century house that is attacked by rising damp. The story opens with the diagnosis, by an expert, that it needs extensive repair. The expert is incredulous that Virginia has let the problem get so bad. Her reason, which she does not tell him, is that when the problem surfaced, her husband was dying. She met John when she was 32 and single. He was 47, divorced, and had been diagnosed with a rare tumour at the base of his spine. She knows this, but he is not defined by his illness, and they fall mutually and deeply in love. She moves in with him, and within months, they are married. 11 months after the wedding, she buries him. Throughout the love story and the final, agonising ending, the theme of repair to the rising damp, and of her steps away from the grave, are woven into the narrative. It is impossible to summarise briefly how artfully and seamlessly this is done, and how, as a young widow, she is released from the self that briefly loved and lost into an undefined future, in a house that is both an ending and a beginning; her life as a wife is ended, and her life as a widow and a person who is not defined by her past is beginning, as she prepares to “take flight” for New York, with John’s blessing and desire that she should live “a rich and full life”.

When it Rains, by Maggie Mackellar, narrates how her life is shattered by the sudden descent of her husband into psychosis and suicide, closely followed by her mother’s diagnosis of aggressive cancer, and death within nine months. She and her husband have a five-year-old daughter, and she is six months pregnant with their son when she becomes a widow. After these terrible losses, which she had no time to prepare for, she struggles on for a year in the city, then moves with her children to the family farm in central western New South Wales. Heat and drought are constant themes, but the simple life, the horses and other livestock, the rhythms of the land and the seasons, slowly restore her and her children to a sense of worth and a reason for living. She takes the scary step of resigning from her academic job, and becomes a country woman and a full-time mother and writer. She struggles with two griefs, the grief for her beloved mother, which is “open and raw and honest”, and the intertwined, ambivalent grief for her husband, whom she had loved unreservedly and feels betrayed and abandoned by. He haunts her dreams, and “the question of why one death is so different from another, one grief so perplexing, so hidden, and another so obvious, so instinctively harrowing, keeps niggling me”. At last, she begins to release him, and when her daughter is nine, and agrees that it is time to let go, they go back to the sea, and the children throw his ashes into the air:

He mixes with salt and wind. He falls on rock and heath. He falls into beauty as the children scatter him like chicken feed. They laugh and chase each other on the high headland in the screaming wind. I say goodbye. At last, I say goodbye.

The epilogue: it’s Christmas Eve back at the farm, and a big rain is forecast, breaking the long and severe drought. She lies in bed, quiet and lonely. Then the rain starts to fall. “Tomorrow, I think, because of the rain, tomorrow will be different.”

Finally, a few words about Rachel Robertson’s memoir of her relationship with her autistic son, Reaching One Thousand. The story of Rachel’s awakening to her son’s difference, and her search for ways of relating to him that respect his difference and allow them to develop trust and intimacy is delicately told, with restraint and honesty. Theories about autism and the mind are lightly woven in and filtered through the narrator’s down-to-earth, ethical, questioning intelligence. Understanding and acceptance bring healing for disappointed expectations, and the joy of sharing a different way of being. One of the delights of this story is that Ben, a story-teller in his own right, has a strong voice, and is given the last word. I wrote a longer review of this memoir in my blog.

If you haven’t read these stories, I recommend them. They are shining examples of memoirs of healing.

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Christina of Memory and You

  1. Thank you for introducing these three books. I too like the distinction between good and remarkable memoirs. For me, Alice Pung’s first memoir, Unpolished Gem, is good, while her second, Her Father’s Daughter, is remarkable (despite the uneven prose and poor editing in parts of the second book).

    • Thank you, Bryce. I like your comment on Alice Pung’s memoirs; she is on my ‘to read’ list. Interesting that you find the second one remarkable, though poorly edited in parts (a common story, sad to say); as I recall, the first one had more fuss made around it. But it’s often thus. What the media say and what readers experience are often out of sync. As a reviewer, I often have to review a less than remarkable, even a less than good book which the publishers and media are big-noting.

    • Thanks Bryce … I totally agree re Pung. I thought her first nicely written but a bit blinkered, but Her father’s daughter was indeed remarkable! Her choice of the two voices was well done and her ability to understand her dad was rather beautiful.

  2. Thank you for this review, and for the knowledge that a PhD of life writing exists! That sounds like a magical course of study. I very much like “life writing” myself, but haven’t yet lived enough of a life to write a memoir myself!

    • When will a life be enough? An interesting question. But I know what you mean. I think when you reach a certain point in your life, you’ll know it’s time. As for a PhD in life writing, I think the best course of study is living your own life with awareness and passion; and one day you will perhaps want to write it! Meantime, reading other people’s lives is a wonderful looking glass world. Thank you for your lovely comment.

      • Thank you for your lovely reply, and for understanding. For now, I plan to keep writing my secretwords to myself and my adventures on my blog, and perhaps one day they’ll coalesce. 🙂

        • Thanks Christina, I’m sure she will … Writing (and editing!) are her loves! And, I agree, blogging is a great way to meet other interesting and interested minds.

  3. Pingback: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion | Writing Lives

  4. Hi Christina and Sue

    Thanks for this lovely piece. Of the books mentioned, I’ve only read Virginia Lloyd’s The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement which I found very moving. Christina, your description captures the book’s art perfectly. The other two sound like valuable discoveries.

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