Memoirist and novelist Harrison (Creative Writing/Hunter Coll.; Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, 2014, etc.) again taps the well of her personal life for a series of essays dealing with long-standing preoccupations and compulsive navel-gazing, the result being an alternately compelling and uncomfortable reading experience.
While many readers will sympathize with the author, admiring her candor, courage, and flashes of excellent writing, these pieces will connect most strongly with readers as neurotic as she is—those prone to hand-wringing, crying jags, and obsessing, sometimes for decades, over the same, possibly unresolvable issues. For Harrison, writing is not merely catharsis, but dissection, a meticulous reading of the entrails of her experiences. Memory is the linchpin of the book, but the author is smart enough to know that memory is unreliable. In piece after piece, Harrison revisits (and re-evaluates) her anguish and confusion over her resentful young mother, a manipulative father (the author chronicled her incestuous relationship with him in The Kiss), her emotionally insatiable grandmother, the death of her much-loved father-in-law, and her fascination with Joan of Arc. The author also explores the joys of a happy marriage and the pleasures of raising three children, but it is the pain that lingers. Harrison is at her best in such essays as the moving “Mini-Me” and the incisive “The Forest of Memory,” while the title essay offers what is perhaps the most interesting weave: luridly macabre imagination twined with real-life experience.
Given the autobiographical design of the collection, it may seem churlish to attack the book for going where the author so often has gone before; yet Harrison is self-aware to the point of self-absorption and self-effacing to a fault. However, the author’s intelligence shines, and these ruminations may encourage some to confront their own anxieties.