I was, I have to admit, predisposed to like Margaret Rose Stringer’s memoir, And then like my dreams, before I opened the cover. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed, but not, as it turned out, for the reason I expected. Here’s why. Margaret Rose Stringer once worked as a continuity girl in the Australian film industry and she was married to stillsman (film stills photographer), Chic (Charles) Stringer. I spent many years of my career working with film stills, and I loved it. I was therefore looking forward to hearing an insider’s story. However, the book didn’t really spend a lot of time on industry talk, but Stringer is such an engaging writer that I didn’t care because, by the time I realised it, I was fully invested in her story about the love of her life.
“The love of her life”. This could suggest something rather schmaltzy but while Stringer is totally one-eyed about CS, as she calls her late husband, this is not a schmaltzy book, not really, not despite frequent adulatory proclamations of love. Part love-story, part grief-memoir, the book works because of Stringer herself – her honesty and her writing style. I don’t make a practice of reading about grief. However, over the years I have read Isabel Allende’s Paula (1994), Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (2005), and Marion Halligan’s autobiographical novel, The fog garden (2001), and haven’t regretted any of them. Of course, Didion, Allende and Halligan were all established writers when they wrote about their grief, whereas Stringer was not.
But, she could have been, because this book has a fresh, lively style despite its subject matter. In fact, I did say it was only part grief-memoir: while we are told in the first chapter – one-page long and simply titled “All of it” – that she met Chic Stringer when she was 31 years old and that he died 31 years later, much of the book is about these 31 years, of which only the last couple encompassed his dying. Theirs was, it seems, the perfect love story. Stringer briefly describes her childhood, particularly her difficult relationship with her mother, then her undirected, rather wild and unsettled early adulthood in which she was dogged by anxiety, panic attacks and clinical depression. She discovered late in her much-loved father’s life that he too suffered but apparently, while he recognised that Stringer, the fourth of five daughters, was similarly afflicted, he did not have the wisdom or knowledge to effectively help her. Chic, though, did – through love, patience and tolerance. Stringer visualises their relationship as a “truth tree” with the trunk comprising the fundamental fact that:
Chic really, really wanted and needed to look after me; and I really, really wanted and needed him to do it.
My feminist self was a little taken aback by this, but it became clear that Stringer is not, as this might suggest, submissive so much as in need of love and nurturing, which Chic provides. In fact she says:
The point is that I didn’t simply go along with everything Chic wanted, because I loved him. Nono! – I retained my behavioural traits, because they were mine and they comprised me, even if they were less than totally attractive and desirable as traits go. After all, it was me he loved – not some paragon ….
She could, she said, be stroppy and unreasonable, and he could be bossy, but they made it work. I did feel she was a little too self-deprecating, too willing to put herself down at times, but she’s so thoroughly genuine that these niggles subsided.
Most of the book is about their life together: their work, particularly in the film industry and then the video production business they established when long-sightedness forced Chic out of his career; their various homes, including the one Chic built on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury River; and their European travels, with some lovely stories about their passion for Placido Domingo. She refers us to their site European Travels with a Spouse for further information on their trips because, as she was reminded by her advisers, she was not writing a travel diary! Chic’s dying and her subsequent grief occupies only a small proportion of the whole.
What makes this memoir especially engaging is the style. Firstly, there’s her friendly, open voice. And then there are the quirky features, one of which is the use of script form to convey key scenes. Most of the book is written in first person, as you would expect, but these script scenes are written in third person. They relieve the intensity of the book and are, in fact, a little whimsical even when the point she wants to convey is serious. It’s the reverse what of Francesca Rendle-Short did in her fictional memoir Bite your tongue which she wrote primarily in the third person, using another name for herself, but occasionally inserted some first person commentary. For her, writing in third person enabled a distancing from the emotional intensity of a story she found “hard to tell”, whereas Stringer often uses these third person scenes to make an emotional point. Or, sometimes, just to tell a funny story. Stringer also uses footnotes entertainingly; she openly discusses the advice she received about memoir writing; and she tells her story through mostly short chapters with inspired titles like “Crust (Daily)”, “Joy”, and the ironic “Silver Tongue” in which she discusses Chic’s dislike of her “coarse utterance”.
Stringer is, of course, particularly moving when describing her grief, from her initial denial, through the last months of caring for a terminally ill partner, to feelings of “utter confusion” and madness afterwards. Joan Didion also wrote in her memoir of the mad – aka magical – thinking that attends grief. Stringer, in her inimitable style, is more direct and writes of her “mad-soup” brain.
Late in the book, Stringer says that part of her reason for writing was “to travel all the roads and pathways and sidealleys leading to and from grief”. She has achieved that, and more, because what she has written is a sad yet humorous, and ultimately wise book about the most meaningful thing in our lives – love.
Margaret Rose Stringer
And then like my dreams: A memoir
Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2013
(Review copy supplied by Fremantle Press)