It is so fitting that the original cover of this book, which you see depicted here, arrives from the library marred by a plain, gray wrapper around the offensive bit—you know, a woman’s bare breast. It is metaphor come to life for Lidia Yuknavitch’s searing anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water: hide and deny what is most natural, until it becomes a thing of shame.
Yet it would seem that Lidia Yuknavitch hides nothing. The Chronology of Water is ripe with shock-jock language and imagery. It is angry and lurid and reeks of booze and sex and blood. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. The day I finished the book, I went and bought a copy of my own–no wrapper around the front cover, just a woman’s beautiful body disappearing in a shimmer of torso, cut in half by the air above and the water below.
Water is the thematic structure around which this narrative is built—fluid from the body that spills in birth, in sex, in menstruation, in vomit and bile; water that offers healing and and generates power as a strong body sluices waves to win swim meets or meets an object of one’s desire in a hotel swimming pool; water that can take life in a vulnerable moment as one’s father collapses in the ocean.
But it’s her body that Yuknavitch offers up for examination: a body that in the opening chapter is ruptured by birth. That experience is bookended by years of incest on one side and self-flagellation on the other, until the author meets herself full circle as a wife, a mother, a writer, a woman.
She conceals much in her narrative of abuse, but we are allowed a glimpse behind the wrapper of her shame and sorrow and witness a woman’s soul torn in two by violence and fear.
In my house the sound of leather on the skin of my sister’s bare bottom stole my very voice out of my throat for years. The great thwack of the sister who goes before you. Taking everything before you are born. The sound of the belt on the skin of her made me bite my own lip. I’d close my eyes and grip my knees and rock in the corner of my room. Sometimes I’d bang my head rhythmically against the wall.
I still cannot bear her silence while being whipped. She must have been eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Before it stopped.
Her father physically and sexually abused Yuknavitch and her sister; their alcoholic mother existed in a fog of denial. Yuknavitch became a woman full of rage. She turned on herself, turned against her body, which had been made beautiful and powerful by water. She squandered a college swimming scholarship through drugs, alcohol, and sex with anything that moved. She punished herself over and over, for years, trying to root out the evil that abuse had buried in her.
Writing became her salvation. Time and again, as she lurches from mistake to affair, from addiction and obsession, it is writing that buoys her above the waves of her own destructive seas.
Caution must be taken not to romanticize Yuknavitch’s scary history. The author as addict, the notion that one must suffer to create great art, is a cliché that works because it is true time and again. But separate yourself from the literal and sink into the sheer beauty of her language, the way she wraps her arms around you and won’t let you go, you will be rewarded with tears and laughter, with frustration and rage. You will feel. And isn’t that why we read? To feel, deeply, achingly, painfully, blissfully.
The nature of memoir, as distinct from autobiography, is like looking down at your body in a pool of water: shapes are distorted, disjointed, appearing larger or smaller or not at all. Memoir is not a chronological connection of facts. Memoir is a work of prose, an interpretation of one’s life just as a painting is an interpretation of a scene or a theme. Whether or not every event described by Yuknavitch, or any other memoirist, really happened is not the point of memoir; the point is to offer the reader a powerful piece of writing with experiences that elevate the personal to the universal. Yuknavitch says it best:
All the events in my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory…there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory-but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.
This isn’t for everyone. Some will read and be exasperated or disgusted or disbelieving. I get that. I get that chaos and promiscuity and addiction are ugly, messy, and life is too short to waste reading about someone else’s tragedy and self-destructive behavior. That’s pretty much me, really. But something about this story–the goddamn gorgeous language, the raw power of its brutality–gave me so much comfort and solace. In Yuknavitch’s word embrace, I felt the magic of self-acceptance and self-love, and the crazy-wonderful beauty of life.
“Listen, I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love.
It’s the love of art. Because I believe in art the way other people believe in god.
In art I’ve met an army of people – a tribe that gives good company and courage and hope. In books and painting and music and film. This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through…Come in. The water will hold you.”
N.B. Lidia is a Northwest writer, one of our regional treasures. I had never read her writing until this memoir and I fell hard, fast. And was gutted to learn I had missed her 2-day writing workshop here, in my little village, by two weeks. Alas, she’s hosting a repeat in October. When I shall be out of the country. Le sigh. Come back, Lidia. Come back when I am here. I’m ready for a swimming lesson.