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Georgia Blain: Births deaths marriages: True tales (Review)

December 29, 2016

Georgia Blain, Births deaths marriagesPoignant is a word I actively avoid in my review posts, as it’s such a review cliché, but sometimes a book really does call for it, and the late Georgia Blain’s essay-collection-cum-memoir, Births deaths marriages, is such a book. In the last essay, she talks of her mother, broadcaster, activist and non-fiction writer, Anne Deveson, trying her hand at fiction just as she, Blain, was trying non-fiction. She writes:

We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each other’s shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across once again, curious as to how this had happened (“A room of one’s own (2)”)

The poignant thing, of course, is that these two who were so closely entwined in life, not just as mother-and-daughter but as writers, died within a few days of each other – with the sadly ironic twist that the daughter died first. It makes my heart break a little, something I wouldn’t have felt had I read it before these deaths. Such is the impact of context on our reading, eh?

Anyhow, onto the book. Births deaths marriages (the title has no separating commas) is the second memoir-in-essay-form that I’ve read this year, the first being Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance. Both books follow a general chronological arc but the essay form makes it easy for this not to be strict, allowing the writers to follow tangential yet relevant threads. From here, though, the two “memoirs” depart, because the respective writers’ lives are very different. Wright, the younger writer, was writing primarily about her twenties and focused particularly on her experience of an eating disorder, while Blain was in her mid forties when writing hers. She was a published novelist and, significantly, had experienced a much more public life, not only because both her parents were public figures but also because of her mother’s own memoir, Tell me I’m here, about life with her schizophrenic son.

This book – with its intensely personal subject matter and its unusual form – offers rich opportunity for discussion. To do it justice, I’m going to have to narrow it, so I’m going to focus on form and style, but some content will push through along the way. The way I see it, there are two broad types of memoir, those which tell about lives most of us know little or nothing about (such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes, or, more obviously, celebrity memoirs) and those which are about lives much like ours. Georgia Blain’s falls into this latter category. For these ones to engage readers, they need to offer something illuminating about the lives we lead.

“the truth was a little more complex” (from “Getting in the boat”)

The first essay in Blain’s memoir is titled “A room of one’s own”. In it she reflects on her childhood, on how her mother would write about their family for newspaper columns and how reading these columns later, with their bland pictures that “did not accurately reflect who we were”, brought back the child she was, the child who wanted her family to be like the one in the columns, who thought all other families were like that and not like the messy reality she was experiencing. These bland columns are the antithesis of what Blain shares in her essays (and indeed of what Deveson herself shared in her memoir). It’s all about purpose I suppose. Newspaper columns tend to be more about entertainment – with perhaps some subtle messages about life – whilst memoirs, good ones anyhow, are about “truth”. If we don’t feel the memoirist is sharing the “truth” of her (or his) experience we are going to lose interest pretty quickly.

Blain convinces me that she is sharing her truths when, for example, she describes, in “The story my mother tells me” and “The outside country”, her fears about childbirth and her struggle to cope with the demands of motherhood. She exposes herself with soul-baring honesty when she shares her sense of disconnect, of being alone, of being “shattered” when her baby is born. She writes that she wanted to give her daughter “the place in my life that she needed and deserved, one that was without my terror and anxiety about loss of self” but it took several months for this to happen. She writes with similar honesty about her relationship with her husband Andrew. It takes some guts to write what she does.

In “Close to the bone”, Blain addresses more directly her writing life, and the difference between writing fiction, which she’d done until this book, and writing about herself, which she was now doing. Reflecting on her brother’s death, she says:

The complexity and rawness of an immediate response to pain is not easy to understand and recognise, let alone pin down in writing, in a photograph or in a film. The very act of capturing distorts. Once neatly contained, all that we felt is no longer unruly, unreasoned, immediate and wild. Perhaps this is why we hold these moments as truth. They cannot be replicated. Each time we try, we dilute their intensity, we confuse, holding up false images of this so-called truth that leave us reeling as we try to reconcile what we see encapsulated with what we have experienced.

Even her “truth”, the one she is writing, she sees, is not easy to grasp. She goes on:

I believed, and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and the lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate…

These two excerpts reminded me of that David Hockney comment about happiness being a retrospective thing I wrote about recently, because I read them as her recognition that there are different truths – those immediate reactions and feelings, and those that come later. It’s this sort of reflection on “how” we live and interpret our lives which makes Births deaths marriages such a meaningful read.

I said that this memoir exemplifies the second type of my two simple categories, but I meant it when I defined them as being about “lives much like ours” because no life is the same. And so, Blain, like all of us, had her own set of challenges, including her control-freak, sometimes-violent father, and the tragic loss of her schizophrenic brother. One of the joys of her book lies in watching her explore and expose her own development, her learning not only to come to terms with these experiences in her life, but to use them to come to a more open, flexible way of understanding. She writes of “chasing absolutes”, of believing that “there was one truthful answer to every question” which she had to pin down, when in fact, as she learns, the truth lies in the “layers”.

In the end, there are no resolutions, she realises, but there are momentary happy endings along the way. She also realises that “writing about oneself” can “amount to more than a purely personal exercise”. It sure can, as she has proven here. This memoir is special – and not just because of the context in which I am reading it – but because it’s honest, because it doesn’t pretend to have it all sorted, because, in fact, it’s true – to her life and experience, and also to ours.

AWW Logo 2016Georgia Blain
Births deaths marriages: True tales
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2008
ISBN: 9781742743981 (eBook)

24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2016 9:58 am

    Poignant indeed

  2. December 30, 2016 11:06 am

    It might be a cliché but poignant is a very useful word and one we ought not avoid when it’s just the right one. This review is a powerful tribute to Blain, well said, Sue:)

    • December 30, 2016 2:07 pm

      Thanks Lisa … no, we shouldn’t avoid it I agree but I find it hard to use these days without making the point that it’s a considered decision!!

  3. December 31, 2016 2:15 am

    A terrific review, I really appreciated your emphasis on analysis, rather than rehashing the content. Memoir is a very interesting form of writing – more intense than autobiography, and ‘truer’ than autobiographical fiction.

    • December 31, 2016 5:22 am

      Why thanks Bill. And yes, I agree re memoir. I feel that it’s really come into its own in the last decade or so as a valid form. I guess it’s always been there but there was a time when it was hijacked by the “misery memoir”, many of which I enjoyed but which also included a lot of copy-cats which turned people off the form in general. And yet, as you say, it can be a rich source of reading in the hands of someone who is not only perceptive and thoughtful, but can write.

  4. December 31, 2016 2:26 am

    This sounds really wonderful. Did you pick it up after Blain’s death or had you already begun it? I’ve read a couple memoirs as essays and I must say I do like that style very much.

    • December 31, 2016 5:24 am

      Yes, I did Stefanie. I was writing my Monday Musings on her and decided to download it onto my Kindle. It’s times like those when I love the Kindle, as in “I’d love to check out XXX. Oh wait, I can do it right now ….”

  5. December 31, 2016 6:38 pm

    After learning of the mother and daughter I think this would be an interesting book. Your review makes it sound so. So unusual that the daughter would die first then the mother a few days later. Then we get the death of Carrie Fisher and her mother the next day. These “duo deaths’ are unnerving. I always think things happen in threes. It will be weird if this happens again in the next couple of months. Their relationship sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.

    • January 1, 2017 12:28 am

      They are unnerving, I agree, Pam, particularly with the second one happening so close to the other. Very different circumstances but still – I hope your “threes” rule doesn’t play out this time.

      • January 1, 2017 10:07 pm

        It has in a way. Father Mulcahy and Trapper John actors both died on 31 Dec and 1 January. In their 80’s so a good life but what a coincidence.

        • January 1, 2017 10:18 pm

          Oh dear BUT let’s say it has, and then there’ll be no more, eh?

  6. January 1, 2017 10:43 am

    I read the book some time ago and really enjoyed it but what stays with me now was how dreadful her father (and Anne’s husband of course) was. It must have been so difficult growing up like that.

    • January 1, 2017 11:04 am

      Yes he sounds pretty difficult. She glosses over the violence so it’s hard to know how violent he was – a lot, occasionally? Did he beat them? But his controlling, obsessive unbending manner in itself is tough enough. And clearly, his jealousy of Deveson’s success.

      • January 1, 2017 11:55 am

        It’s familiar territory for me (the behaviour) but luckily not in my childhood which was pretty idyllic. I’m guessing he did. I want to read her last soon.

        • January 1, 2017 3:16 pm

          Yes, I want to read her last too.

        • January 1, 2017 9:40 pm

          Did you see what my blog about a discovery I made after reading the Thornell novel

        • January 1, 2017 9:59 pm

          No, but I’ll go read it now – this year has not been a good year for keeping up with blogs.

        • January 1, 2017 10:04 pm

          The same for me. I’m doing a major cull of my hotmail and unsubscribing to a lot of things like commercial booksellers to get my emails under control

        • January 1, 2017 10:25 pm

          Oh dear, the emails are never-ending, aren’t they, and not long after you do a good unsubscribe clean-out, somehow new ones appear from who knows where!

        • January 1, 2017 11:00 pm

          Exactly. It is never-ending! I’m getting nowhere tonight

        • January 1, 2017 11:06 pm

          Me neither, I wonder why!!

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