Mary Karr is an American poet and essayist, as well as a professor of English literature. She has written several books on her life, but this is the memoir that shot her to fame, in 1995. Obviously The Liars' Club is not a novel, so don't expect any wild departures, though by the standards of non-fiction this is pretty wild.
The book tells the story of Mary's childhood, or part of it, in a refinery town on the Texas coast, then briefly in Colorado, in the 1960s. There is a coda set in the 1980s, when she was a young adult. But what made her childhood special, in the wrong and weird more than good sense, seems to have been her dysfunctional family, and especially a mother who was many times married, saw herself as a failed New York artist, and was at times plain neurotic. Then there was the authoritarian grandmother who was dying of cancer, and a more benevolent father who nevertheless spent his time taking Mary to the 'liars' club', a group of tall-tale telling, drinking, and card-playing friends. So Karr tells of her family's Bohemian home life, their regular brushes with road and hurricane deaths, the universal censorship of their prying neighbours, school fights, sudden house moves, parental drinking binges, etc., etc.. And it all comes out as a tough and sometimes heart-wringing tale that nevertheless manages to convey the optimism of a coming-of-age story.
The Liars' Club has sometimes been compared to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, as both describe in tender and positive terms an objectively bleak childhood. Karr's book is in some ways a more grown-up version. The author went through terrible experiences, having been raped twice. The book is a testimony to the humour, resilience, and stoicism of Karr and her indomitable sister. And its style is moving and compassionate without being overburdened, confirming that poets are often the best writers of prose. At the same time, I thought Karr under-exploits the liars' club theme, which after all is the book's title. There is actually not that much on her father, and more local colour could have been provided through that device. Indeed, this inevitably does not have the characterisation of a novel, and the antics of Karr's mother get somewhat repetitive. I found my attention flagging a little in the book's second half, and thought this has less pace than Angela's Ashes. Still, three stars is perhaps a little grudging: this is more like a weak four stars. For though not a page-turner at every page, The Liars' Club remains a moving and finely written piece.