Poignant 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.