Tiernan (Celebrate Japan, 1990) relates a life filled with turmoil, tragedy, persistence, and triumph.
The author, nicknamed Zip, begins her story by remarking that her friends and acquaintances have often asked her to write a memoir, and it isn’t a hard claim to believe. She was born near the beginning of World War II to a complicated Vancouver couple whose income troubles and demanding, punitive attitudes toward their children often overshadowed happier moments. Tiernan writes that she was first sexually assaulted as a 4-year-old by an unknown attacker and later again, repeatedly, by her father. As an adult, she also suffered hardships, including a divorce and the death of her young daughter. Her memoir is honest about the dark moments in her life, but it also stands as a testament to her perseverance. Her fundamental desire to thrive took her to a small logging camp, a Girl Guide center in Mexico, and homes all over Japan, often as a teacher or a guide to young people. This book is ultimately about surviving by being open to new experiences. But although Tiernan’s story is memorable, she describes it much too quickly, so that readers who’ve never met her personally will likely find it difficult to engage with it. She relates most episodes and observations in summary, with each chapter containing a series of paragraph-length memories; punctuation errors are also frequent, though not pervasive. A good memoir requires retrospection and introspection as well as a unifying narrative structure. These are sometimes present here, and when they are, the story can be quite moving; at one point, for example, she writes of her striking adult realization that her mother’s refusal to stop her father’s attacks was partially a result of the family’s economic dependence on him. However, the book doesn’t sustain this quality of retrospective analysis in most other chapters.
An oversummarized memoir that shortchanges its subject’s inspiring life story.