My WIT Month reading has gotten off to a shaky start. I was about a fourth of the way through Aimez – Vous Brahms when Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water (not a translated book) bookjacked me. Really. Once I began reading TCoW there was no looking back, there was no reading anything else, there was practically no other activity out of me other than reading that book.
It all began with an essay I read in Guernica by Lidia which I wildly loved and propelled me to finally read this book, her memoir, which had been on my TBR list for quite a while. You know that question you get asked now and then (usually on social media) about which books influenced your life or some such? Well, with my horrible memory the only books I can think of readily are The Handmaid’s Tale, The Prophet, and The Year of Magical Thinking. Well, now I have a fourth. This book rocked me, I mean it rocked me like lava gushing down the volcano and you’re in the little village in the valley running for your life.
This is not a book review.
It’s my thoughts and feelings about the book. You cannot be a passive reader of this book. The first chapter throws you right into the hot water that is TCoW and you spend the rest of the book alternately sinking and swimming.
The book begins with the story of the birth of Lidia’s first child who is stillborn. The description of her experience is visceral from the first sight of her lifeless child to the after-birth shower where she states, “ I sat on the stool and closed the little plastic curtain. I could hear her humming. I bled, I cried, I peed, and vomited. I became water.” She talks about the months after, “I never felt crazy, I just felt gone away”, when she existed pretty much as a husk of a human. It’s one of the most difficult, heart-rending passages I’ve ever read.
“One morning my sister heard me sobbing in the shower. She pulled the curtain back, looked at me holding my empty gutted belly, and stepped inside to embrace me. Fully clothed. We stayed like that for about 20 minutes I think. Possibly the most tender thing anyone has ever done for me in my entire life.”
Yep, she pulls you right into her world. Her childhood in a not-home with an abusive father, a passive, suicidal, alcoholic mother, and a sister she adored but who was barely hanging on herself while doing what little she could to help Lidia cope. She left when Lidia was 10. Lidia’s home life was dysfunctional and abusive but the one thing that saved her, the one thing that belonged to her was water, swimming, and is a theme we see throughout the memoir.
Lidia describes her abuse through language that is brutal and raw yet she never goes into detail as so many memoirs by survivors of abuse do. She doesn’t need to. Her mastery of language is so elevated that in reading her accounts there is no doubt by the reader what has happened. And her rage grows. There are so many instances of the interaction between Lidia and her father and Lidia and her mother that raised the hair on my neck and made me thank the universe I wasn’t born into a family like hers. I won’t go into some of the particular incidents that will never leave my mind but if (when) you read this book, the days before she leaves for college just killed me. Killed. Me.
Once in college, she pretty much lets loose. Lots of sex, lots of drinking, lots of self-destructive behavior. Lots of bombastic language – there is not a shred of reticence in her descriptions. This is her lifestyle throughout her early adult life. I have to admit here that I almost quit reading a couple of times during the substance abuse pages but that’s my own stuff rearing its head. I didn’t want to hear it/read it. I know my reaction is because of addictive behavior I’ve seen up close in my life, the consequences of that kind of behavior on family and friends. I’m afraid I don’t have much sympathy, at times. But I plowed through those parts and I’m glad I did.
I felt both great empathy and horror at the descriptions of gratuitous and varied sex. I felt like Lidia hated herself as she tried everything and anything to make herself feel. On one hand she was numbing herself with alcohol and on the other she was pummeling her body with sex, trying to feel something. It’s unexplainable and tragic. I’ve never talked to someone in the kind of pain she writes about. I can’t even imagine the impulse to self-mutilate or allow subjugation of your body by others but she makes me understand it a little.
Then, in between all the chaos, there was always the water. Her one solace. And, finally, her son and third husband whose love brings a kind of peace and envelopes her in a world of home and family like she’s never had.
“I thought about starting this book with my childhood, the beginning of my life,” she writes. “But that’s not how I remember it. I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations.”
Those retinal flashes are what makes this memoir stand above any other I’ve read and a story that will live in my gut for a very, very long time. Although I couldn’t relate to some of the book, I didn’t have to; there was much I could. Lidia’s memoir is one of mental, emotional, and physical trauma, threads of which are interwoven in the lives of many women. That she survived the gauntlet of her early life is a testament to her strength and resilience. Few girls and women live a life sheltered from all the bad shit in the world that can happen to us and sharing our stories, as she has done, can only empower us. In reading this book, I felt a woman-kinship with Lidia. And, yes, hope.
Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore and buy this book.