Friday, 13 January 2017

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

I think I am harder on memoirs than on other types of books. When I sit down with one, I want the book to justify its own existence, which doesn't happen with a novel. I'm not nearly as on guard against fiction, because fiction could be anything - good or bad, gripping or boring, but somehow it always feels to me that it has a right to be there, even if I don't like it. (Okay, there are a few notable exceptions, but those are books that really pissed me off.)

In contrast, with memoirs, I'm always faintly suspicious - what happened in this person's life to make it worth writing about? Was it more remarkable than most people's lives? Does it capture an experience I've never seen before (without resorting to exoticization)? Is the writing particularly good, or the person particularly perceptive about how their life relates to the greater human condition?

There are a lot of lives in the world, and not everyone is cut out to be a writer. However, not only do a lot of people think they're novelists who can't write worth shit, everyone has a right to shape their own story - but what makes it publishable?

With this cynical attitude, I sat down to read Plum Johnson's They Left Us Everything, a memoir about cleaning out her parents' house in Oakville, Ontario, as well as bits about her relationship with her parents, her brothers, and what she knows or discovers about her parents' marriage.

And it's...okay. I'm not going to be so grumpy as to say it shouldn't be published, but neither am I entirely sure that this is world-shaking. It's a small story, told in a way that doesn't intrude with the prose, and that is both good and bad.

Two things I wondered about: in telling the story of her parents, it feels like she's telling her brothers' stories, too, and that sits oddly. What would they write? This book made me more aware of how stories overlap - my story is not my husband's story, nor my mother's, nor either of my sisters', but they overlap in significant ways, and if I tell mine, am I obscuring theirs? There was something about this book that made me think about how who is writing changes a life.

Particularly since, in this case, she's writing about a shared childhood. It doesn't make her perspective less valid, but it does make me wonder if the brothers who were frequently beaten with a strap have the same feelings of forgiveness for their father as she does, because she confronted her father after he'd been punishing her brothers and told him he was cruel and seen a flash of recognition and he never did it again. She was never hit that way, and has the memory of stopping it and a belief that her father hated doing it. Do her brothers? Can she forgive him on their behalf?

This also falls into the camp of one of those memoirs where things about her family life seem, if not outright abusive (but maybe so), certainly strongly controlling and unduly harsh and erratic. One where you feel like the author would resist the labels that might apply to them, yet the story that is told, it's hard to come away from it with as much affection for her parents in hindsight as she herself musters.

So, this is a memoir, and it's fine. But not a lot more. Perhaps it's just not that I'm at that point in my life, although I have already lost one of my parents, and helped my mother move once.

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