Monday, March 10, 2008

Abigail Thomas: Safekeeping, Some True Stories from a Life

My sister recently recommended Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life as good airplane reading. When I first glanced through it, I admit, I groaned. The chapters are extremely short, the story jumps around with no chronological order, the viewpoint changes from third person to first person to second person with no warning. I thought, oh great, another too-cool-for-school, experimental memoir that's trying to be deep. Thanks, Anna.

Then I started reading.

Safekeeping is actually a very lovely, well-crafted book about marriage, love, life, and mostly, memory. It is the story of a middle-aged woman who is trying to piece together her memories, trying to sort through and reconcile her life after the loss of a close friend who was "once upon a time" her husband.

The short, out-of-order chapters work because that is how memories come to us. In short, uncontrollable bursts. A displaced memory of a smashed dish, a loose fragment of a conversation, the cramped feeling of an old apartment.

The switch in viewpoint works surprisingly well. Instead of coming off as unbearably post-modern or uber-artistic, it serves as a simple, concrete tool. A woman trying to get a 360 degree view of her life. We see her as a young woman as *she* remembers herself. Then we see her as she imagines an objective observer might see her. Then her sister comes in and says, no that's not how it went at all...don't you remember?

And that's the thing. We don't remember. Not exactly. Abigail Thomas writes on her website:
I’ve written nothing but non-fiction for years now in spite of my poor memory. I can remember moments, and scenes, but not what happened when or what came after...But if I could remember everything in its proper sequence, there’s a lot of life that’s interesting to live but not so interesting to write about, let alone read. And frankly, I’m bored by chronology. I don’t even believe in chronology. Time is too weird. It contracts, then it shoots forward (or back), it dawdles, stops still, and then suddenly we’re twenty years down the road. Whole decades evaporate. For me connecting the dots is not as absorbing as the dots themselves. I’m more interested in why certain memories stand out. Why these and not others?
It's a great question, and one that I've been thinking about ever since I read Safekeeping. Writer Anne Lamott said this about the book, and I don't think I could sum it up better:
[Safekeeping is] not so much memoir as a stained-glass window of scenes garnered from a life. This is an unforgettable portrait of a grown-up woman who has learned to rejoice in being herself. Reading it, we feel the crazy beauty of life.


Megan said...

What Lamott has to say about that book is so beautiful it is almost haunting.

Josephine Cameron said...

Isn't that gorgeous? I love the stained-glass window analogy.