A hypnotizing memoir exploring depths of severe illness, identity, and memory itself.
Clendinnen (Reading the Holocaust, 1999) provides a discursive account of her childhood in Geelong, Australia during WWII, of her parents, and of her current experience fighting against liver disease. The author, whose degenerative illness leaves her prone to hallucinations, first takes the reader on a meandering tour of ephemeral images past and present, including recollections of early-life impressions of animals, folk stories, and the raw sights and sounds of hospital respite. She takes into account the associations behind her train of thought. In one case, while in the hospital, she remembers a girlish fascination with a tiger at the zoo. “I too was in a cage with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod,” she writes. As her memories gain coherence, the reader is drawn into the story of Clendinnen’s parents, her childhood, and daily life in the town of Geelong. These are relayed not so much in narrative but in mood and feeling (“When my father was shaving it was warm fragrant, sun-yellow”). The author is at her most engaging when she struggles to shape an accurate picture from memories of her parents—a pursuit that acknowledges the frustration of the parent-child relationship. “We will be able to look directly at them only when death has lifted their shadow from us,” she bemoans. Clendinnen moves through her remembrances in a trancelike state, often making use of abstract metaphors (e.g., she describes herself during one period of convalescence as being “held together by shadow knitting”). The result is a powerful and vivid recollection, in the mire of self-absorption.
A touching insight into how we build our sense of self.