Confession, reflection, defence, distortion and misdirection, catharsis from pain, reliving joy, a chance for cold revenge on one’s enemies, rediscovering ourselves through our past, or simply to set the story straight from yours, truly: These and many more are reasons to write a memoir.
Besides, we’re an insatiably curious and reflective species: Basho, the 17th-Century Haiku poet and traveller, wrote:
It is deep autumn
How does he live, I wonder.
I admit freely that I wonder, too. And more: I wonder, of others, what that argument was about, and what made the person behave like that, and who did what to make the child such a monstrous adult.
Hell, if I could only – and invisibly – peer over my garden fence into the neighbours’ backyard during summer time while they all chinwag, or magically appear at their childhood home or even those of perfect strangers (besides those whom are famous), and take notes unhindered of family gatherings and private thoughts and conversations.
But since I’m not the sort to shamelessly – what a shame, what a loss! – to listen in, nor – god forbid – to jam my ear lustily onto a down-turned glass – itself jammed up against the wall dividing my neighbour from my curious self – instead, I’m sure I must – at least in part – be overly compensating by reading and joyfully amassing oodles of published memoirs, journals and diaries, personal correspondence and biographies.
Not only, of course, has the memoir long been published – how could I not reference Augustine’s astonishing Confessions, of the 4th-century AD – it has also long been read. In fact, they sell in their millions: we buy them by the juggernaut-load – and, throughout the 1990s to date, they have remained one of the biggest selling categories of book, with publishers and us readers never seeming to get enough of them. Remember the appetite for Angela’s Ashes; A Child Called “It”; Night; Dreams of My Father; Thinking in Pictures; Me Talk Pretty One Day; Eat, Pray, Love; Prozac Nation; Girl, Interrupted; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Lucky; Chronicles: Volume One? No doubt each of you recall many others, including those of your personal favourites.
Besides the endless avalanche of memoir published by celebrities, actors, designers, artists, politicians and leaders past and present, fashionistas, scientists, has-beens and wanna-bees – most of the aforementioned, sadly, written by ghost writers – there are also those written by unknowns or relative unknowns: that is, often until they publish their story and we few or many are given the opportunity to delve into their past with them, simply by opening the covers of a book.
And now we have Ghost in the Bone, by Penny Bunton (UK paperback and Kindle edition here, and the US Kindle only edition here). It’s the memoir of an “unknown” – though in fact you may well have seen the author any number of times on screen or in a TV drama and simply not known her, as she’s been an actress in supporting roles for decades, including RED 2 (2013), The Murder of Princess Diana (2007) and the long-running British TV serial hit, Medics (1990).
While I must have read hundreds of memoirs over the years, some famous and some less well-known, Ghost has already become one of my favourites and, having read it twice, I know without hesitation I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because this book is a tour de force. Not only is this the author’s first ever published book, but also in one swoop she has mastered the art of the memoir, which is such a difficult and challenging form of writing.
After all, if you were to write one, just consider the overwhelming choices you’d have to make: which memories do you include and which should you leave out? Should your story be episodic, thematic, or only chronological? What of those many moments of guilt, of embarrassment, of intimacy, anger or failure? How much do you reveal about your relationships with lovers, friends, family, professional colleagues, your own thoughts and feelings about them, and what of the anxiety about how they’ll react on reading it?
I imagine all these and more as obstacles and the struggle with myself to attempt to account for them, but soon give up even in my imagination, because I feel friends, family and my past breathing down my neck, peering over my shoulder as I struggle with the conflict between telling my version of the truth and being reasonable to the outside world, yet wanting to spill my guts and blood and tears over all my pages, come what may. Yet my significant others look over my shoulder still and at what I’m typing on my screen. I hear them tutting, muttering, twittering, derisively sniffing and roaring with laughter – all in the wrong places, mind. And didn’t I just hear eyeballs rolling in the back of their heads, too? So for these reasons and more (a lack of courage, a lack of perspective), I don’t think I’ll ever write my memoir.
My hats off, then, and most of my head in joyful obeisance to those who not only have written their memoirs, but who have also, like Penny, been gifted enough as writers to produce something remarkable, too.
It’s the story of a little girl told at the awfully tender age of two by her Dickensian character of a mother – of whom, more in a mo – that, before she was born, she “grew in another lady’s tummy. When you came out, you were kept in a special home with lots of other babies […] It doesn’t mean we love you any the less; we love you just the same. Because we chose you.”
As an adult looking back at this scene, she writes:
In that instant, my heart became a piece of jigsaw, with a hole in one side and a rounded bud looking for another hole on the other. In the space of those few minutes, the state of anomalousness in which I lived had been revealed to me, and I embraced my status as though granted the key to grace. The knowledge was an escape, an exculpation, a release. I had been as it were given back to myself – and to my mother. My blood mother.
This is the story not only of the impact of the life of one individual who has been adopted, but also the psychological duress she endures growing up in an emotionally sterile house through which “there ran beneath the surface activity a current of unspoken thought, of covert observation and singular psychic combat.”
We learn of the emotional abuse inflicted on her by Helen, her adoptive mother, whose almost unceasing mood swings, occasional histrionics, calculating looks and sociopathic indifference to Penny, besides her cruel remarks and actions, make everybody tip toe around her in nervous fear. Here’s Helen for you, then:
My mother took to being an invalid. On the excuse of […] a history of weakness in her chest (one always knew where she was in the house by the boom of her catarrhal cough), my mother retired to the sofa and to her bed, and ruled the house from a horizontal position. Every exertion required a corresponding amount of ‘rest’: after cooking, marking exams or homework [she’s a teacher of physics at a training college], after going for a walk, carrying a vase from one room to another or brushing the dog my mother would feel the need to ‘put her feet up’, and off she would limp to an appropriate horizontal surface. We were required to creep about and keep quiet while her eyes were closed.
And, when her adoptive parents permanently separate, her father John soon living with another woman and in the proceeds of a divorce, mother remains hungry to devour news of her ex, sinking her teeth into Penny’s neck for the nourishment:
Back in the chilly Cambridge house, greedy for pictures of the alternate ménage from which to torment herself, my mother picked at my experience of my father’s life much as a child will a scab on its knee. Often a sore was exposed, and she would lick at the blood. What did we eat for dinner? How often did we have steak, would I say?: three times a week? More?
(Note: steak to Helen was an outrageous extravagance she could never tolerate, being so tight-fisted and miserly – she keeps unwanted gifts over the years in a “Present Drawer”, parcelling them up anew for everybody else, including many joyless ones for her own children up to, and including, their adult years.)
Her adoptive mother’s miserliness is also only the surface residue of a deeper, almost savage cruelty that lurks below and appears with such insouciance. Explaining the reason for the ungraciously tiny amount of money Helen is to leave Penny in her will, Helen has this to say:
‘Because you haven’t been a very good daughter. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?’
A fretsaw wheels in the corner of my eye. I feel dizzy.
‘I don’t know, Mummy,’ I say. ‘Do you really want me to answer that?’
‘Yes,’ she says, with decision. ‘Why not?’
Yet Penny manages to give a marvellous, brightly defiant response that must have been so hard to say with a beating heart and ears still ringing from being battered by words of such coldblooded indifference:
‘Well, if you’re asking me whether or not I think it’s fair that you do what you wish with your own money, then the answer to that is yes. If you’re asking me whether or not I think it fair that you are leaving me a smaller portion because you think I haven’t been a very good daughter, then the answer is no. I don’t, for instance, think that you’ve been a very good parent.’
‘Is that so?’ she says, surprised; and then, as though she found this of academic interest: ‘When do you mean? Now? Or then?’
‘Well – both,’ I say.
‘Oh,’ she says. She might have been told that no post had come today. [My italics.]
But this is not a relentless “misery” memoir of those childhood years, despite the fact her “mother’s unhappiness was a net that she threw over everyone […]”.
In fact, there is more pensive reflection and sadness and rarely a note of anger, nor an ounce of revenge, even though you feel Penny would have been more than justified in expressing rage and moving across the page of her memoir-writing with a daggerly pen. Instead, and throughout the memoir, it is clear how much she loves all of her adoptive family – and this, despite their many wrongs against her. Rather, she is one to pull no punches on her own account, despite you feeling she deserves to be so much kinder to herself, she doesn’t hesitate to be unswervingly self-critical:
Facing my mother is ordeal enough, without facing my brother, too. I will lose my breath, I will drown in my guilt and my shoulders will snap like twigs. I know that were we to meet, my brother and I, he would look down pleasantly on my face, would surprise me with his mildness of manner […] so what am I frightened of? The inarticulate weight of our history, the dark lane between us in which our parents war and walk; my own frailties and failures, my stupidities and fecklessness – my brother is a mirror of all these things. I have bewildered him with my difference, and he has taken it in as betrayal.
Now I do feel the need to hasten and reassure you it is far from all doom, gloom and shocks in the tradition of Mommie Dearest. When you turn the pages you find there are many moments in this memoir that express genuine happiness in her young life and, among those she loved were her father, John, who in turn loved her so as a child:
[…]When my father came home, the air moved. He opened the front door on a Friday night and my heart along with it, bringing with him life from Outside, a small breeze that blew all weekend-long, and which was shut off as he pulled the door to on his way out on a Sunday evening. After that, until the following Friday, the au pair and I were sealed in with my mother.
And, whenever there are good times to be experienced among her growing pains, the author relishes them, never hesitating to be appreciative of them and to portray lovingly those whom are good, kind or just plain delightful to remember.
Take two of her childhood friends, Mary:
Mary kept hamsters – a source of great envy […]. In fact, the appearance of either of the younger brothers would prompt her immediately to say, in her quick, energetic way, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here; and out she would flounce, leaving me to follow on like an apprentice geisha. Mary was a sly, practical child, her thoughts always a hundred moves ahead of my own, which churned slowly like cake dough in a mixer.
The other spectacular thing I would discover about Kirsten [her Canadian cousin] was her temper. It was no mean thing. When seized with a fit, her voice would warble up to soprano heights, her nose would go red, and complaint was often accompanied by the stamping of a foot – even both feet. These tempests were aw-inspiring. Shocking, thrilling. I admired them tremendously. I admired her tremendously: at six years old, she struck me as a person fully formed: commanding, imperious, funny, dear. She was by quite some margin the most interesting person I had ever met. And her voice (due to a host of household allergies […]) had a hoarseness to it that distinguished her. If a lamb could talk, it would sound as Kirsten did at six years old.
She’s no less marvellous, too, at capturing adults:
Her nose was prominent, her skin sallow, and she possessed a particular voice, thin, slightly broken, like a tricking tap. Her natural expression was that of a person whose thoughts are sad and far away. Mrs Anderson was a beautiful woman.
On Brenda, her elderly stepmother (the second wife of Penny’s adoptive father):
Bathed in the orange light of the close-curtained room she lay in the vast white bed, a tiny frail immobile creature, the suggestion, only, of a body beneath the thin cotton sheet […] The once strong mane of hair was thin and puffy now, the blonde reduced to smoke. A pinprick of red, showed at her temple, and above the knobbly protuberances of her cheekbones her small eyes shone black with her anger. She was very, very angry.
And she’s just as good at quiet, sweet-and-sour comedy drawn from her observations of those around her: Of being in Palm Springs, she writes of a fleeting moment that most memoirists would most likely have overlooked, but thankfully Penny is a true writer, so doesn’t:
At breakfast, from the cool interior of the brasserie we have chosen, I gaze through the window at the palm trees plugged into the sidewalk at intervals of about ten feet. These have great hives of old leafage around their trunks: apparently all sorts of things make their homes inside – even rats. Not that I’ve seen anything either entering or exiting – not even a bird. Hopeful of seeing a rat, I have been looking carefully.
I become aware of a man and woman at the table next to ours. Sotto voce I say to Andrew:
‘I wonder if they live here, or whether they’re on holiday.’
The woman is English, but dressed in sporty American style: white trousers, crisp white shirt, wedge trainers, the uppers made of some sort of quilted material. An expensive pair of sunglasses sits on her cleavage, attached to a gold chain.
‘You never support me,’ she is saying to the man. ‘I sit there, saying what you ought to be saying, while you say nothing.’ Her energy is enthralling: it is concentrated, utter, directed. It is only seven o’clock in the morning.
The man is looking out of the sheet glass window, probably waiting for a rat to pop its head out of the palm tree. […]
‘Are you listening to me? Why don’t you respond when I’m speaking to you?’
The man does not take his eyes from the palm tree. Maybe he’s seen the rat and I’ve missed it.
Dear reader, I confess I laughed my tits off at that passage, and re-read it immediately and several times with much joy, in awe of the sheer control, and the delicate observation of what was obviously a tense, difficult moment between a couple in public, while admiring the brilliant seam of humour that cheekily shines through it and makes of the piece something both sad and joyfully funny at the same time.
I’m sorry-not-sorry for quoting so much from her memoir, but I do so in large part because I wish to convey to you the sheer excellence and vividness of her writing, of how wondrous she is at capturing people as well as the turbulence and see-saw of her significant experiences, from her first boyfriend to the loss of her adoptive father, adoptive mother, and the journey you take with her from her childhood of the 1960s (she was born in 1961), in middle-class but stultifying Cambridge, to the 70s, of two glorious holidays in Vancouver with her adoptive father’s brother and his own family, with a fast-forward-and-back to an astonishing account of her attempts in the millennium years to connect with her birth mother, much of which is nerve-wracking yet utterly gripping to read.
Allow me to quote one last time for you and to remark on it further. This, on Brenda, again:
[She] died three years after my father, in December 2009, a cramped wizened bird of a being, thin-skinned, twig-fingered, possessed of an enormous appetite for scones, which I fed to her in tiny bite-size pieces, laden with jam and cream. She ate with astonishing zeal, chewing with her mouth open. This was not, as might be imagined, a function of advanced decrepitude, but a life-long habit. Surprising in one for whom extreme femininity had been a calling card.
Isn’t that simply astonishingly good writing? It would be perfectly at home in the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and echoes the steely intelligence and driest of wit of the brilliant but neglected Ivy Compton-Burnett.
It’s probably obvious to you by now that I found no imperfections in the writing. But while this is not a criticism, in terms of story I do admit to wanting to know all about a vast swathe of her life that Penny doesn’t touch on at all: of her studies and time at Oxford University (her adoptive parents seemed to believe not a jot in her intelligence or talent; and neither, sadly, did she when growing up), and, too, her no-doubt many adventures as an actress in her adult years (albeit we do have a fleeting glimpse in her late teens of a friendship with Colin Firth during a brief spell at the National Youth Theatre).
On every page, you’ll find time and again there’s always something to bookmark, underline or note in your journal, and to share with your bookloving friends. It is a memoir of writing so touching, moving and funny, so gentle and loving and thoughtful, it is literature of the first rank. It deserves to win prestigious nonfiction awards and those for first-time published authors. It deserves them all, and then some.
If you are a true booklover, you know well the excitement felt when you’ve read something wonderful and excitedly wish to press a copy on every friend you know who also loves literature. And, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you may access it for free straightaway – lucky dog, you! The physical copy is a lovely edition, with a beautiful cover, and the price to purchase a copy is generously low. I would love to know if you read it, and your thoughts. Do drop me a quick comment, below, or at the least, anyway, do please promise yourself that you’ll look out for a copy and add it to your list of books to read next…
A final thought: one of the telling signatures of a great book is that, as a reader, you want more and don’t wish it to end, anticipating the sadness and disappointment of reaching the final page; the rush to the first page, again, to re-read it straightaway. So, I do hope the author will return at some point with another memoir, to reflect on those other times, too. I’ve no doubt, based on this book, how captivating it would be. But then, whatever she may write, the same confidence in it would be justified, because Penny Bunton is the real deal: a gifted, funny, sad, moving, thoughtful writer.