ESSAY Julia Forster

NWR Issue 100

Don't Look Back in Anger

Like those of many people, my childhood was pretty uneventful; there’s little raw material from which to mine a best-selling memoir. Instead, I’m currently writing a novel from the point of view of a young child based very loosely on an embryonic autobiography which I failed to take to full term – due in a large part, no doubt, to my low-octane childhood. As such, I’ve been remembering how the world looked from a perspective of under four feet tall – what was within my sight and comprehension, but also those objects and events which were on the periphery of my field of vision, forbidden or not discussed. When I was reading these diverse titles I found that the theme to which I kept returning was that of absence. What did the parents of Horatio Clare, Alexandra Fuller, Niall Griffiths and Mary Karr withhold from them as they were growing up? And in turn, what did the writers internalise as children, only to lay their innermost experiences bare years later in these family memoirs?

You’d be hard pressed to find a preoccupation more concerning for the memoirist than that of mothers, of course. For each of these writers it’s the bold, unusual decisions that their mothers took that informs the narrative. Take Mary Karr, for instance: it’s her mother’s predilection for re-marrying (six times) and binge-drinking that looms large over Karr’s troubled child- hood in the oil plains of Texas. After a dramatic episode in which her mother is gripped by a manic episode and stalks her daughters’ room clutching a butcher’s knife, the mother is taken away. Mary visits her in a mental institu- tion with her sister, Lecia, and her father. As she turns to wave goodbye afterwards, Mary’s mother pushes her hand up against the chicken wire that divides her from the outside world and her young family. Karr writes, ‘It made me think of a very white orchid I had found once sprinkled with some powder and mashed between the pages of Hamlet,’ a sentence which could summarise The Liars’ Club it’s a tale of how mania engulfs the fragile, rarefied mother and what the consequences of her illness are for her unusual, wild daughters. Daughters who are asked point blank after their mother’s release who they want to choose to live with – mother or father – as if choosing from ‘two ice cream flavors.’

It is a situation that any child of divorced parents knows well: a sense of maturing before your years, experiencing an accelerated childhood where adult choices are demanded of you, despite your parents’ best intentions. There is no escaping it: the nuclear home has atomised...

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previous essay: The Nightingale Silenced
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