Most stories do something satisfying with the mess of tedium and violence that is living; they give it focus and form, tone it up, calm it down, shape it tidily, fluff it or primp it or tame its wilder edges, until you have something sleek and purring in your hands, rather than the slightly unkempt beast that life usually resembles, with a tendency to charge at you out of dark places. So what is at stake, then, in the case of a memoir? A story about life itself, as it has been lived, for one individual? When a memoir writer sets out to transform life into a story, what is the guiding principle or higher intention? What kind of order is being carved out of the chaos?
In Lorna Sage’s exemplary memoir, Bad Blood, the main thrust of the narrative seems to be to show how we are composite characters, made up of pieces of the people who raise us. But the memoir also suggests that what we do with those pieces may well be quirky or downright subversive. For half of the narrative, Sage herself stands aside, in literature as in her life, to let center stage be dominated by her colorful cast of family members. It’s only towards the latter stages of the book that she makes the reader gasp herself, by nearly succumbing to her family’s demons and then magically rising above them.
What I loved most about this book were the character portraits, as Sage has a genius for taking ostensibly repulsive people and making them human in a blackly amusing way. Her grandfather offers the first, prime example in the book. A womanizer, a drinker and a dreamer, not to mention the vicar of the middle-of-nowhere parish of Hanmer, a small town lost between England and Wales, and more importantly lost still in the 19th century, he manages to behave like a criminal while feeling like a victim. He was a showman in the pulpit and a libidinous cad with other women, but at home he was ostracized with a mixture of fear and contempt. He had a ‘violently unhappy’ marriage to Sage’s grandmother, a woman who had grown up living above a grocer’s store and could never get used to the fact that she no longer had access to unearned plenty. She was a rabid man-hater, a principle she had derived from her particular experience of marriage. Much as her husband’s adulterous pursuits gave her good reason for injury, she was far from blameless, having loathed him and shown it since their earliest days together. She gave as good as she got; having found his private diaries in which he documented his extramarital relationships, she blackmailed him for a chunk of his salary to keep her in sponge cake and trips to the cinema. Sage’s mother grew up sidelined and overlooked by the violence of emotions in the household. Worse still, one of her school friends became the mistress who would cause the greatest domestic disharmony. When Lorna was a small child, her family lived at the vicarage while her father was away at war. When he returned, so imprinted by his experiences of battle that he continued to be a martinet and a belligerent disciplinarian despite the peace, her mother was finally obliged to run a household of her own, and the madness of vicarage life rushed to the surface in a series of phobias. Food, in particular, was a nightmare, as she had a terror of anything natural: joints incinerated in the oven, vegetables were set on the stove first thing in the morning and cooked to a paste. She longed to be able to feed her family with pills. But the 1950s were in some respects a perfect age for her. Processed food was starting to make its way onto the average dining table, and fish fingers represented her ideal triumph over bones, scales, and other distasteful relics of real life.
I think it was Tolstoy who said that happy families all resemble one another. But it struck me, reading Bad Blood, that unhappy families are not so very dissimilar. There are, after all, only a few elements of ordinary disorder that find themselves arranged in different permutations. There are families in which bad emotions and bad actions rule, dominating daily life; there are families in which the older generation refuse to take responsibility for themselves; and there are families who resist change, who insist to their children that nothing can improve or fade away with the mere passage of time. It was just Sage’s bad luck to be in a family that demonstrated all of these characteristics. But what Sage makes of it is never mournful or depressing. Her voice is firm, concise, appraising, elegant but down to earth. She may have lived her childhood forced to put up with other people’s madness, but her own way of keeping even is to have seen her family members without illusion, to hold herself apart in order to get some honest perspective. The lifeline that allowed her to do this was provided by books. A voracious reader and an insomniac, Sage was given license to indulge both by the local doctor, thwarting her family who felt vicarious pride in her intelligence, but also feared it as bad blood in a new incarnation. In fact, it would be her ticket out of small town hopelessness as she was to become a distinguished professor of English literature, but not before nearly ruining it all for herself in a moment of careless ignorance.
I loved this book purely for the strength of the writing, which is vivid and fierce. It is also a beautiful study in the power of repetition and obstacles in family life. And it is a hymn to books and their ability to provide mental and emotional space in situations that are dominated by claustrophobia. Warmly recommended for anyone who enjoys memoir. Read other reviews of this on the Slaves blog, or come and join in the discussion.
I only know vaguely what it was like in Britain after the war, so to me her childhood sounds pretty stark in some ways, but even if it was really fairly ordinary, she did an amazing job writing about her family. I liked the way she told her story–focusing more on her grandparents and parents than herself until the end as it made the last section that much more powerful. And I can totally understand her need for books and stories!
Litlove, it was such a joy to see a post from you in my reader again. I have this book on my list, and after your review, will make sure to get to it sooner rather than later. I like your summary of unhappy families–I would just say the differences are in the details and degrees.
I think I have this somewhere and will have to look it out, as your review makes it sound very interesting [nothing new there then]. I notice you are on US spelling – is that for Slaves? Hope your book is going well, though I’m not sure which one it is – seem to have lost track of that.
I loved this book too — for the character sketches and for the writing, as you describe. And I also loved the picture of the time period. It wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels as though it were. I know how unwed mothers were treated, but still the portrait of it was shocking.
It’s nice to hear from you again!
Hi! Nice to see you posting! 🙂
I’ve always felt Tolstoy was oversimplifying with that happy-family sad-family business. You’re right – there’s only a few basic things, in lots of different permutations, for happy or sad things. I think being in any family feels unique from the inside, but the base facts and situations are essentially the same.
I loved this review! Vivid and fierce is a very good way of describing her writing. And that first paragraph about taming the beast of life and making it purr. This is what I’m missing in your blog absence. Sage’s portraits feel so true-to-life and I think I will be measuring the memoirs I read from now on against this one.
That Tolstoy line always strikes me as slightly drammatic, desperate attempt to write a first line, not something Tolstoy actually believed was an encompassing statement. Kind of like he was stuck knowing who all his characters were and what they’d do later, but couldn’t find a way to begin. I know there’s a word for that kind of statement with opposites in it, but not a paradox…Juvenal uses that kind of statement a lot…damn brain fuzziness.
Lorna Sage’s life sounds just awful. I’m always in awe of writers who can pull all the pain in their lives out and make it work for them. Reshaping your life for a book must in some way be a really good way to take a hard look at how it all worked, but ouch how hard it must be.
First of all, it is SO lovely to see you all here! Dear blogging friends – I cannot in all honesty say I have reached the stage of missing the churning out of reviews, three times a week, but I have missed all of you. The Slaves have given me a wonderful excuse to pop back, and maybe I’ll do another post soon about what’s been going on here lately.
Danielle – I loved the way she kept herself hidden until quite late in the story – and those grandparents were quite something, weren’t they! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I had exactly the same reaction to the book as you did.
Lillian – it is wonderful to see you here, too! And of course you are perfectly correct. The devil is in the detail, and there ARE huge differences in experience caused by nuanced shifts in relationships. I quite agree.
Bookboxed – ah my friend, it is good of you to try to keep up with these things – the book has changed just about every which way since I started to talk about it three years ago. I’m writing about Cambridge and the learning process now. We’ll see how it goes. I have a nasty feeling that my computer just changes the spelling of words when I am not looking, and it does insist on Americanizing everything it can. But do try Bad Blood – the writing is exquisite.
Dorothy – it’s nice to be back, even if briefly! I felt just the same way you did about the book. It is shocking in some ways how quickly social attitudes have changed since the 50s here in Britain. Although I feel it was necessary and I am so glad that we have a healthier attitude towards difference and eccentricity now. The social order used to be monolithic and must have smothered so many people’s lives for no good reason other than the demon of respectability.
Jenny – it’s lovely to see you too! Yes, that is exactly what I find fascinating about family stories – the way that so much is recognisable (as just part and parcel of family life) and yet those parts add up to something wholly unique. It’s fascinating.
Pete – She could so easily have sensationalised those relatives, and made the story gothic and torturous, but she doesn’t. She keeps it real, which is exactly what you are pointing out here. I really appreciated that too. And it is wonderful to have you with us in the Slaves! You bring such an interesting perspective to the books – we need you.
Bookgazing – that’s so interesting what you say about Tolstoy. I have read shamefully little of his work (half of Anna Karenina, to be precise) and I would like to know more about him. Is the word oxymoron? It might not be, I’m just having a stab in the dark here. And Sage’s family must have been hell at times to live with. But it must also have had its compensations and pleasures, too. I completely agree that it is a tough skill to remain true to all the elements in a life, to give them order and sense without too much distortion. I wonder whether you ever feel like you’ve captured your family, or if you always think you’ve ended up creating something just to the left of where they truly stood, something a bit artificial and clear cut? As you so rightly say – hard work.
She died too young, in her fifties. I always wonder if a childhood that is deeply psychologically damaging makes this more likely. No research could ever prove it, I suppose. And I suppose it is one factor among many and everyone’s fate is the sum total of all the unique combinatin of factors affecting them.
Jean – funny, but I’ve been looking into that lately, the mind-body connection in illness. I recommend Why Do People Get Ill? by Darian Leader and David Corfield, and The Sickening Mind by Paul Martin, the latter being slightly more technical than the former. It seems to be quite true that certain types of personality are more at risk of certain illnesses than others. Mind you, reading the memoir, I could see why she suffered from emphysema – a combination of childhood insomnia, wandering around the countryside in all weathers and not much heating can’t have helped.
I sort of think it is juxtaposition, but sure there was a special word we learned long ago in the days of classics lecture. Might have to dig out my old folder because it’s annoying me 😉
I drop by every few days hoping to see you’ve done the same, and I can’t tell you how happy I was when I saw a fresh post – I had to blink a few times to be sure it wasn’t wishful thinking! Ah, LL, what superb timing – I’m writing a piece on memoir for the next Varuna Alumni News… I shall quote this post! And I will also seek out Bad Blood – the family sounds vile and eccentric and utterly compelling.
Litlove, I didn’t have the time to read this one, but I sure enjoyed reading your post about it. I have to reiterate others above – it was so good to hear your “voice” again! I really have to check this one out of the library. They had it on hold for me, but I knew I just wouldn’t find the time. Maybe later this summer. Hope you’re enjoying your time off.
Bookgazing – let me know what the word is! I am full of curiosity now!
Doctordi – it has been VERY odd following all my friends but writing nothing myself. In fact, I decided I might as well write the occasional family post, just to keep in contact with everyone. If there’s any chance we bloggers can read you on memoirs, let us have the link! Otherwise, do let me know what you think of Bad Blood. I thought the writing was wonderful, really brilliant.
Grad – there’s always a book (or two) in the Slaves calendar that falls just against the grain of life. We all find that! But it’s a good book if you like memoir. I think Dorothy said it was very like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and I completely go along with that. Mad family story but told without complaint or accusation. I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it.
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