Wellcome Book Prize #5 – Rausing

My penultimate review of the six books shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. The final one for The Vaccine Race will be my stop on the official blog tour, for the prize which starts tomorrow (details above).

Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing

You may remember much news coverage of the Rausing family, heirs to the Tetrapak fortune.  A tragedy occurred in summer 2012, when the body of Eva, the wife of Hans K Rausing was found in their London house. Hans had hidden the body for some weeks. He was given a suspended sentence for delaying burial, and spent time in psychiatric care. Eva and Hans were both drug addicts, frequent relapsers, frequent visitors to rehab, frequently not managing to control their addiction, yet they managed to sire four children, who ended up in a custody battle before being taken in by Hans’s sister Sigrid.

Sigrid, the editor of Granta magazine, wrote this book as a memoir recounting the effect of addiction on a family.  It has been a controversial book in the extreme.  I have to say, I didn’t feel easy being privy to this family’s trauma. From a medical point of view the cyclical nature of their addiction came across clearly, but the rest felt intrusive at times. Of course you may say, given the column inches of speculation and reporting of the kind that never forgets to mention the family’s billions, that it is morally right that several years later, Sigrid has written her side of the story.

The text is written in vignettes, which chop and change through the family timeline, from the Rausing’s childhood, from various family interventions, visits to see Hans in rehab and so on, mixed in with psychoanalytical insights, and occasionally – happier memories, perhaps from their childhood in Sweden.  She writes to distract herself from thinking about writing the book too:

I notice that I an hesitant to begin the story. I write around it.

Her writing is sparse, every word considered and carefully chosen, Rausing is clearly an perceptive writer.  She is very hard on herself; she is brutally honest, knowing that others will be hurt by the book. Rausing is hampered however by not being able to say more about Eva and Hans’s children for legal reasons. The narrative arc, such as it is, is fragmentary and she admits in her afterword that it is ‘partial and unfinished’.

This left me with the questions: Why now?  Is it not too soon?  Sometimes, though, you just have to get things off your chest to help yourself.  (6/10)

Read also reviews by: Clare, Paul

Source: Own copy

Sigrid Rausing, Mayhem: a memoir (Hamish Hamilton, 2017) hardback, 208 pages.

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9 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize #5 – Rausing

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Clare’s review mentions a quote from the introduction where she has tried to think through all the possible negatives before writing. I’ve read many memoirs where people talk about other deceased family members – e.g. Richard Beard and Cathy Rentzenbrink, but those had a focus on those left behind, whereas this one couldn’t do that in the same way.

  1. Laura says:

    I had similarly conflicted feelings about this, though for different reasons. I didn’t find the memoir intrusive but, as she obviously (and rightly so) had to leave so much out, I questioned whether there was enough left to justify the writing of it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That’s the nub of it really – you can infer that the youngest child is still a teenager – so why not wait. I did feel uncomfortable at times though reading it, a better word than intruding, the celebrity of the case does make voyeurs of all readers in a way.

  2. Mark Thornton says:

    I think you nail it right at the end: she’s written it for herself, and she’s collected together what she at this point in her life. The Rausings were always regular features in the Sunday Times Rich Lists – I actually did not know about what happened in 2012. But I guess the lure of intrigue and hidden histories is just too much to resist when billions are involved, in our late-stage capitalistic world. Reminds me of a quote from an 1897 ‘success book’ that I own: “Money Talks. Poverty talks too, but no-one is interested in what it has to say”.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve just popped over to read your review while scheduling mine for the blog tour. (Predictably, I seem to have said all the same sorts of things! Oh well.) It somewhat helped that I’d never heard her family’s story and don’t remember seeing any of the headlines. What I found most interesting was how she kept pushing back at the sensational nature of the details and trying to make it more of a family story. But yes, I, too, wondered if she could have just waited until all the children were of age.

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