Sunday, August 31, 2008

Memoir writing at its finest

Julia Blackburn is a well-known writer of non-fiction, but it is this, the memoir of her growing up years, that will likely go down as the definitive work in her oeuvre.

The daughter of a poet father and painter mother, Julia grew up in a Bohemian household that comes across as horrific for the scant regard it paid to the conventions of family. Her father Thomas was an alcoholic addicted to sodium amytal. In his madness, he turned into a violent beast who would come close to snuffing the life out of Julia's mother Rosalie.

There are long descriptive scenes of Julia's mother using her as a shield against her husband, confident in the knowledge that Thomas would not harm his daughter. Which he didn't, physically that is. It's another matter what effect this sort of experience would have on the psychology of a little girl.

The real thrust of Julia's memoir, however, is not the violence perpetrated by her father (whose love she was always certain of), but the strange jealousies that her growing up aroused in Rosalie. Soon after her parents separated, Julia moved in with her mother, and so began the process of renting out the spare room to eligible male lodgers, all of them potential mates for a ravenous Rosalie.

What follows is a disgust-inducing account of Rosalie competing with her daughter to win the affections of the lodgers, even as she is preternaturally interested in introducing her daughter to the vocabulary of adulthood — fellatio, masturbation, lesbians, dildoes. A stung Julia, desperate to make sense of Rosalie's vanishing motherhood, falls deeper into the vortex of self-destruction.

Matters come to a head with Geoffrey, a divorced artist, who seems as interested in Rosalie as Julia, at least in the beginning. Mother and daughter must go their separate ways in trying to win his charms, even as their collective story builds to grief, ending in crime and guilt.

Each chapter in the book ends with a footnote from the present (1999), as a dying Rosalie comes to stay with an adult Julia. Finally, with the smell of death hovering in the air, the duo are able to reconcile their bitter past and make peace.

Julia is a gifted writer, a consequence perhaps of the experiences life has handed her. Which is why, in spite of its grimly cautionary tone, The Three of Us is memoir writing at its finest.

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