A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Family Memoirs
A well-written family memoir is a beautiful thing, though sometimes subject to accusations of solipsism. What’s the point of all that introspective navel-gazing? I disagree that autobiographies are inherently narcissistic; because we all only ever get one self as a window onto the world, it makes sense to explore as thoroughly as possible what the experience of selfhood has taught us, pondering how we can make the most of the incidents that have made us. I love autobiographies, but I also love memoirs that place their subjects in the context of their time, country, community, or – as in these terrific examples below – their families.
1. Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2001)
Bad Blood builds slowly and quietly, through little things Sage noticed as she was growing up with her mother and her grandparents in their vicarage home just over the Shropshire border into Wales. Her grandfather had fallen into disrepute with the Church for his licentious behaviour. He had an affair with a local nurse, and then – worse – with one of his daughter’s friends. Years in an environment of suspicion and anger could not fail to affect Sage; she retreated into books, treasuring Latin lessons and novels read during long nights of insomnia. Her pregnancy at age sixteen led some to wonder whether the ‘bad blood’ inherited from her grandfather would be her downfall.
One thing is certain: Bad Blood is not Sage’s autobiography. She sometimes seems a mere background figure, with the wider story of her family taking precedence. As well as a study of family life, the book is a portrait of a dying way of life in rural England. Her depiction of 1950s village life captures a place on the verge of change, when rock-and-roll and a more general Americanization would erode traditional mores. This is a splendid family memoir, psychologically astute but wryly humorous. It’s a master class in how to reflect on family life and experiences.
If you’ve never encountered Gerald Durrell’s writing, you’re in for an absolute treat. In his autobiographical trilogy the celebrated naturalist recounts his upbringing on the Greek island of Corfu, with longsuffering Mother, ditzy sister Margo and bristly brothers Larry (novelist Lawrence Durrell) and Leslie forming the support cast in the absurdist drama that was his childhood. Durrell was obsessed with collecting animals (he would later found a famous zoo on Jersey), so the house was always filled with a menagerie of hedgehogs, owls, lizards and a pair of puppies charmingly named Widdle and Puke. He captures the manic joys of family life in a style that is both hilarious and irresistible.
3. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (2009)
Walls tells the life story of her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, as an imagined first person narrative from Lily’s perspective. It is easy to see why Walls was eager to capture her grandmother’s story in her own voice: Lily is a wonderful character, bold, sassy and full of gumption. She grew up on ranches in Texas and New Mexico where she herded cattle and broke horses; tasted big city life in Chicago, where she had an ill-fated marriage to a sweet-talking vacuum cleaner salesman; and finally returned to her old haunts to remarry and become a mother, teacher, entrepreneur and amateur pilot. I loved the book not just for Lily’s remarkable story, but also for the way Walls captures an almost prelapsarian vision of America when the West was still wild and real cowboys existed, when it was still acceptable to love cars, guns and planes, and when there was a sense that life was an as yet undetermined adventure and could become whatever you made it.
The Glass Castle (2005) is Walls’s other excellent family memoir, a beautiful but heart-breaking story of her father’s alcoholism and the struggles she and her three siblings underwent to survive poverty and emotional neglect.
De Waal uses the collection of miniature carved Japanese figurines he inherited from his great-uncle – the netsuke – as a link with his family’s past. He traces the figurines from the first family collector in Paris, through the war years in Vienna, back to Japan, and finally to his home in London. Readers meet several generations of Jewish bankers and merchants, who refashioned themselves from Ukrainian immigrants into polished European sophisticates. The writing is beautiful and understated; though he is a potter himself, De Waal never slips so far into artists’ jargon that the book becomes tedious for the layman. It’s a little masterpiece in itself, just like one of the netsuke.
5. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett (2008)
You might not recognize the name Mark Oliver Everett, but you may know his stage name ‘E,’ the moniker he uses as lead singer of alternative rock band Eels. Growing up in suburban Virginia, E barely knew his father, Hugh Everett III, a brilliant scientist who originated the ‘multiple worlds’ theory of quantum physics. In this conversational, matter-of-fact family memoir – at times as gruff as his baritone – Everett discloses what little he remembers of the secretive man who lived down the hallway, and how he and his mother and sister tried to move on after Hugh’s untimely death.