Short-story and magazine writer Chater brings an ear for dialogue and an eye for the absurd to this tragicomic debut memoir about coming of age in the 1970s in an ultraconservative Catholic family.
The ordeals of such a childhood—the nuns, the rulers, the guilt—have long provided fodder for stand-up comedians, confessional autobiographies and even musical comedies. The author, one of 11 children, contributes to the canon in this painfully funny account. Her father, a state trooper and converted Catholic, was enraged by the Church’s liberalization after the 1965 Vatican II Council. He scorned shorter veils for nuns, Mass conducted in English and parishioners standing for communion as “Vatican II.” In church he ordered his children to close their eyes, clench their fists and refuse the blasphemous Handshake of Peace. Chater was taught that corruption of Catholic traditions would lead to communist world domination and trigger an apocalyptic scenario called the Holy Chastisement. Her father fantasized about moving the family to the miracle capital of Lourdes, France; when that plan fizzled, they settled for rural Portugal. Initially hopeful (“even the dogs were Catholic”), they discovered that Portugal was just as “Vatican II” as California. The family sunk into poverty and returned to America, marginalized and disappointed. Chater’s father grew ever more fanatical. He banned his daughters from wearing pants, shipped his sons to a cultlike anticommunist Brazilian monastery and dragged the ever-larger and poorer family to a series of guerrilla parishes that met in abandoned storefronts and empty garages. The kids got intermittent emotional relief from their devout but eminently practical mother, so frugal that she chose an old mop as airplane carry-on luggage upon leaving Portugal. The memoir’s tone shifts jarringly at the end, when the voice of Chater as a bemused child becomes that of an unhappy young woman. Still, that voice relates a compelling story with a dramatic climax.
Affecting and unsparingly honest.