Novelist Alison (Creative Writing/Univ. of Miami; Natives and Exotics, 2005, etc.) presents a mesmerizing memoir about her broken family.
The author was four and her sister Maggy seven in 1965, when their parents, Australian diplomat Edward and teacher Rosemary, had affairs with an American couple, Paul and Helen, who were in Canberra for Paul’s diplomatic post. The Americans had two girls almost the same ages, Patricia and Jenny. Within nine months, the families had realigned, with the fathers trading places. Jane and Maggy got a new father, new surname, new home across the Pacific and antipodal sisters who, in turn, inherited Edward as a father and the author’s beloved Australia as home. In rich, lyrical prose, steeped in classical imagery and vivid similes of the natural world, the author discusses the implications of this shock-inducing split. Along the way she covers her nomadic childhood in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and South America and her precocious adolescence and meandering adulthood. Alison refrains from hiding behind linguistic dexterity, however, laying herself bare by including verbatim passages from her diaries. Rosemary endured a tempestuous marriage with Paul; the American was cold, though pretty, smart, fierce Jane finally earned his love long after Maggy had given up. After seven years of letters and increased fascination with the other family, Jane and Maggy finally saw their birth father, newly posted to New York, and spent time with Helen and her daughters. The encounter launched a long, destructive competition between Jane and her counterpart Jenny (they shared a birthday) for grades, races, boys and, above all, their fathers’ love. The author’s narration of these years painfully explores jealousy, home, memory and “the wretched human economics of desire and desirability.” Playful syntax and meaningful fragments arranged like poles around colons—“The heart of jealousy: knowing you’re dispensable”—pull the reader along in rhythmic, sensual currents of language that sparkle with Alison’s talent for tethering the abstract to physical description.
An incomparable personal story exquisitely, stunningly told.