I discovered this memoir through Rebecca’s post here and it was one of her ‘backlist best of’ choices too last year.
You need to be of strong stuff right from the start, as Yuknavitch begins her account of her life so far with a truly emotional and painful episode, the stillbirth of her daughter, a defining time in her life. I cried then, and again later – but lest you think this memoir is all misery, there are lighter and more celebratory moments too. The overriding feel for me though, as for Rebecca above, is that you marvel that the author is still alive!
Yuknavitch doesn’t recount her life sequentially, instead dipping in and out of her youth, her college years, her working life and her marriages, but moving roughly chronologically through those three periods. A little like Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, (see here), Yuknavitch’s story is one of survival. Her architect father was abusive, her mother was a depressive alcoholic with one leg six inches shorter than the other. Her sister, eight years older than Lidia, escaped as soon as she could, but the siblings remained close. When Lidia was fifteen, her father moved the family from Washington State to Florida, where he said, the best swim coach could be found – Lidia had become a talented swimmer…
Sometimes I think I have always been a swimmer. Everything collected in my memory curls like water around events in my life. Or maybe everything that’s ever happened to me I understand better if I picture if in a great, aqua, chlorinated pool. Not even Florida could kill the swimmer in me. […]
That summer was long and wet differently for me than it was for other people. The air got thick with more than heat. In June, letters began to arrive in our mailbox. They were scholar-ship offers. For swimming. Exit visas.
She took the swim scholarship at Lubbock, Texas – a dry town she discovered. But there were drugs aplenty if you knew who to ask, and she soon did, she flunked out of college. She met her first husband, Philip, father of the stillborn child, there too – but that wouldn’t last.
Yuknavitch is at pains to tell us that this book isn’t an addiction memoir, but about life, and ‘the will to end’. She was the only witness to her mother’s first suicide attempt:
…I have a sister who walked around for nearly two years when she was seventeen with razor blades in her purse seeing if she could outlive the long wait waiting to get out of our family.
I know that will well now. It’s the will of certain mothers and daughters. It comes from living in bodies that can carry life or kill it.
Yet, Lidia survives through all the drink, drugs and tons of wild sex with men and women, including the late cult author Kathy Acker, (sometimes quite graphic yet enthusiastic and lyrically described!). She ends up blagging her way into (the) Ken Kesey’s writers workshop back in Oregon. He persuaded her that she was good at things other than just swimming, and in his last years was very much a mentor to her. I love Yuknavitch’s way of describing her writing as ‘wordhouses’ – of which she declaims: ‘I am a wrecker and maker of wordhouses.’ how cool is that?
Watery metaphors abound, flowing through her memoir, echoing her other themes of birth, rebirth, and as we’ve already seen, death too. It’s not spoiling things really to tell you that Yuknavitch has been in a happy place for some time now, her memoir was originally published in 2010 after Chuck Palanuik dared her to write it, picked up by Canongate for UK publication last year.
The Chronology of Water is one of those books that grabs you, shakes you up and doesn’t let go until the end. Yuknavitch’s text goes from semi-stream of consciousness to a chatty style, but always utterly frank, engaging and confrontational at times. I am very glad to have discovered Yuknavitch, this memoir was mesmerising, and now would love to read her fiction, most recently The Book of Joan, which is a spec fiction retelling of Joan of Arc’s story. (10/10)