It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does.
Where most memoirs have more of a novelistic, chronological continuity, Fiddleback senior nonfiction editor Nelson structures this book as a series of autobiographical essays, most of which could stand on their own; they are the nonfiction equivalent of a series of interconnected short stories. That form perfectly suits her story of a family in which “the roles have been pre-prescribed, written into our DNA.” The father will die young after long absences in jail or rehab or another relapse after a short stretch of sobriety. The mother will also self-medicate as she tries to sustain the illusion of family, one that is always falling apart. The son will inherit “the dead father’s legacy, this disease,” and is often missing and feared dead. The older sister will write this memoir after studying abroad, falling in love, earning her MFA in creative writing, teaching college, publishing in a number of highly regarded journals and maintaining a facade that masks her genetic code: “We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do. That sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day.” Yet some days have been a whole lot tougher to make it through, to sustain a sense of “my real life, the one outside the theater of my brother’s addiction.” As it does in the cycles of recovery and relapse, prison and release, chronology jumbles, and verb tenses shift. The book’s excellent centerpiece, “A Second of Startling Regret,” unravels the family dynamic and illuminates the “self-sabotaging brain.” Even the occasional misstep into writerly precocity—“There is something heroic about fishermen—all that faith in the dark”—can’t compromise the author’s unflinching honesty and her story’s power.
An unforgettable debut.