NOLA by Robin Hemley


A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness
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This profile of the author’s sister succumbs to self-absorption, revealing the painful difficulties of trying to capture the life of a family member. Nola, the author’s older half-sister, has been dead for 25 years, yet he remains enthralled by her imaginative stories and psychotic episodes. So too does their mother, a bohemian writer whose own story dominates much of this account. Hemley (Creative Writing/Western Washington Univ.) complains that their mother is choosy about revealing even the basic facts of her unconventional life, yet he also self-importantly claims that —the facts are boring . . . bourgeois, not my currency.— In trying to piece together his sister’s life, Hemley delves into his own netherworld of memories, which often seem irrelevant to his sister’s world. As he idolized his sister, he sought to be more like her, adopting a bit of her penchant for Eastern religions and even winding up, briefly, a child ward in the same mental institution where she was an adult resident. The content of this family’s story is not as striking as the author’s artistic choices in telling it; the most sobering question implied by the book is the one Hemley raises at the beginning: —How can one be objective about one’s family?— Objectivity is not apparent here, but Hemley does show how family stories become encoded with time, each narrative taking on its own reality and purpose. He analyzes certain events from several points of view, comparing his mother’s published, fictionalized versions of family events with his sister’s autobiographical sketch and his own childhood recollections. Ultimately, though, even these artistic comparisons become hackneyed in their self-conscious pretensions to discovering Truth. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-55597-278-0
Page count: 364pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1998


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