Rochelle Siemienowicz, Fallen (Review)

SiemienowiczFallenAffirmBeing a reader who focuses more on “truths” than “facts”, I’m not averse to writers playing around with fact in their fiction or fiction in their fact. This issue raises its head most frequently in historical fiction of course, but it’s also present in autobiographies, memoirs and even biographies. And so, here I am, having just reviewed Kate Grenville’s biography-cum-memoir of her mother, talking about another memoir, Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen.

“It is a story …”

Siemienowicz’s memoir commences with – well, a literary in-joke – “Call me Eve”. What? It’s a memoir the front cover tells us, and the author’s fist name is Rochelle. Who’s this Eve? Rochelle explains in her brief introductory note, a note that precedes the Prologue, that her parents would never have named her for “that original sinner” but that it’s the name she gives herself when she thinks back to that time when she was a young wife, “so very young, so very hungry”, when she “picked the fruit and ate and drank until I was drunk with freedom and covered in juice and guilt”. The name Eve then has a symbolic meaning that forces us, as we read the book, to consider the idea of “fallen women”, but it also enables Siemienowicz to distance her present self from that young woman she once was. This reminded me of Kate Holden’s memoir, The romantic (my review), in which she chose a different path to create that separation – the third person voice.

Anyhow, having explained the name issue, Siemienowicz continues with the point that interests me, the form of her memoir. She writes that “it is a story, with parts made up and fragments rearranged like a dream half remembered now that twenty years have passed”. In the Epilogue, she mentions, almost in passing, that she’d originally written the book as a novel.

So, in Fallen we have a memoir that has strong novelistic elements, including a tight cast of characters, a deliberate narrative structure, and dialogue. You don’t find dialogue in traditional autobiographies. We readers would not believe that the writer could remember verbatim conversations held so long ago. But, dialogue is increasingly being incorporated into memoirs. Dialogue can engage readers, and while it may not represent verbatim “fact” it can convey the “truth”.  If you are starting to question by now whether this really is a memoir, I should confirm that it is fact-based, at least I believe it is, unless Siemienowicz has pushed artifice so far that her apologetic-cum-warning phone-call to her ex-husband in the Epilogue is fake! But I don’t think this is the case. There does come a point where you must suspend your disbelief and go with the writer after all.

“I feel something breaking inside of me”

Now, having spent paragraphs on introductory discussion, it’s time to say something substantial about the book’s content. Fallen is the story of a young woman raised by devout Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) who believe, among other things, that premarital sex is a sin. To satisfy her intense sexual longings and remain “clean in the Lord’s sight”, Eve, who feels a freak in a freakish religion, marries Isaac, another SDA, in 1992 when she’s only 20. She’s deliriously happy. They love each other, and they’re free. They rebel – drink alcohol, eat meat, spend hours in bed – but then, within a couple of years, Isaac starts to withdraw, losing interest in their sexual relationship. The solution – because they love each other, and are committed to their vows (to stay married, at least) – is to have an open marriage. There’s only one rule, they must always ask permission first.

Most of the book is set in Perth in 1996, when Eve returns home to attend a conference and catch up with old friends. Her lover, Jay, is to follow for a week, followed by her husband the week later. Before Jay arrives, she reconnects with her first love, and has a fling with another conference attendee. Oh what tangled webs! Things, in other words, start to unravel, and Eve’s faith in her marriage and her vows starts to break down under the weight of secrets. She begins to question whether their rules can work “in the real world” – but the alternative, and its implications, are confronting.

“Can the centre hold …”

Memoirs are interesting beasts. Why do we read them? Sometimes it’s obvious. The memoirist is famous, or is writing about something we love (like literature, for example, for me). Sometimes it’s less obvious. It might be that the memoirist has experienced something we are experiencing like, say, grief. With Fallen, however, neither of these reasons really apply for me. So why read this one? Well, for two main reasons. One is that while the circumstances – a young woman of a strict religious upbringing trying open marriage – are rather narrowly specific, there are some broad themes. One has to do with sexual freedom. What does it mean, before, within and without marriage? How does it affect relationships? What has it to do with sincerity, intimacy and honesty? How do principles fit with feelings? There’s a broader theme too – the formation of identity. The subtitle of the memoir, “marrying too young”, hints at this. How easy is it to sustain a marriage made before you have fully formed your identity?

I feel myself spread all over the nation, with loyalties and loves and lusts from the east coast to the west, and no idea what to do with them. I’m a girl with no qualities and no boundaries, with legs wide open and a beating heart exposed. I’m appalled by myself, but also intrigued. How many tiny pieces of myself can I give away before there is nothing left? How curiously exhilarating. It feels like vertigo.

The other reason for reading this memoir is the writing. Siemienowicz knows how to tell a story. She structures the memoir around a trip back home, which she tells chronologically, but into it she weaves the story of her life and relationships to that point. We see a young woman who can be confident and brazen one moment, and vulnerable and uncertain the next, who throws herself wholeheartedly into life but doesn’t always think about where she’s pointing. And we see all this through a focused narrative and clear, direct but spirited language.

Fallen is, at times, an uncomfortable read but Siemienowicz’s honesty, her angst about her “fraying code of honour” versus her desire to fully engage in her life, captured my imagination and had me wanting her to find an honourable conclusion to a painful part of her life. This memoir is testament, I’d say, that she does.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
Fallen: A memoir of sex, religion and marrying too young
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922213655

(Review copy supplied by Affirm Press)