Was there any doubt?
Of course I'll be taking us along to Julia Blackburn's talk at Dartington.
It's 5pm again, Thursday July 17th in the Great Hall and I've already suggested that anyone foregoing the talk and snoozing out on the lawn instead might regret it.
Firstly the book itself. The three of us - A Family Story and published by Jonathan Cape is a book well worth having in the hand. Production values, which we all know matter, are high. Good quality paper proving that environmentally aware needn't mean Bronco toilet paper standard, and the book is of an unusual dimension, 17cms x 21.5, most hardback books seem to average 14cms x 22 and all these sizes probably have proper names (is it Foolscap Quarto?) but this is one is squareish and it feels really good. The bigger pages haven't been crammed with text right into the margins to save on paper either so it's beautifully spaced with Sebald-like photographs woven in, making it all an easy-on-the-eye delight to read. Somehow the binding allows the pages to lie flat too without committing irreperable damage to the book's spine, all proving that it can be done and making this a book that feels worth the money.
So is it a misery memoir? Well if anyone's childhood and adolescence had the ingredients for the most miserably miserable misery memoir it's Julia Blackburn's, yet somehow it doesn't read like that.
Family Blackburn teeters on the edge most of the time as alcohol, drugs, sex and violence proliferate in young Julia's life in the midst of what seems like an understatement to describe as this high-end dysfunctional family. Both Julia's parents brought a disturbed childhood to their marriage and having been subject to poor parenting models themselves it was obvious that as two very emotionally needy, egocentric people in their own right they might make a bit of a hash of things.
Her father Thomas Blackburn was a poet, a heavy drinker also addicted to sodium amytal but eventually popping any pills that came within his reach from contraceptives to anti-histamines. Julia's mother Rosalie de Meric a painter, 'sociable, sane and flirtatious'. The constant battle between the two of them for the emotional lower ground...well my life was much worse than yours, makes for an unusual ambience around the house.
Writing as an adult and using her copious diaries as reference Julia has captured and bottled that childlike understanding of her situation, it must have been tempting to invest it with the wisdom and hindsight of an adult but she doesn't.
The power of the book rests in its degree of understatement, what lies beneath doesn't need to be said and when symptoms do surface, as when Julia takes to prolonged episodes of screaming, it's quite matter-of-fact almost normalised. This was all day to day life for young Julia, she knew no different. There is not an ounce of self-pity nor a hint of attention seeking as young Julia accepts this as the norm and struggles through, hence as a reader you build up and apportion the layers of guilt and responsibility on her behalf. I was also yearning for Julia to find just one single person she could talk to who would listen and understand her. There seemed to be one or two but by this time Julia, herself prey to the inevitable law of diminishing insight as this maelstrom of life carried her down in its vortex, seemed less and less able to indentify her own needs or make sound decisions.
Healing comes many years later in the unlikely form of her mother's final illness when Julia takes the dying Rosalie into her own home to live out her final days as the leukaemia takes its toll. Mother finally realises what she has missed in her daughter's life, daughter finally receives what she has searched for all her life, a mutually reciprocated and uncomplicated, unconditional love. No matter how brief the healing is complete.
It seems corny to say it is a story of redemption but the book blurb doesn't hesitate to say so and it truly is a remarkable book, humour and lack of blame do prevail and in its final pages it is completely uplifting. It conquers and soars above all that has gone before in Julia's life and the final twist of happiness will leave you feeling on cloud nine for Julia.
So there you have it. I've survived as 'them as know' told me I would.
I didn't feel in the least bit miserable as I turned the final page of The three of us which is surely a fine testament to the non-misery-ness of this potentially miserably miserable misery memoir.
We're in for a fine time at Julia's talk I'm sure.