on 18 April 2006
Memoir - particularly the memoir of family and madness - seems to be the new mini-genre to replace the increasingly dreary "survivor lit" genre, and, if this book is anything to go by, we should welcome it. It's a moving, revelatory book about a fascinating family - the author's own - in fascinating times. It moves from the Edwardian sunlight through the darkness of two world wars, to emerge, with a sort of wonderful redemption, at the present day.
The author is a poet and historian, and you can see both at work here: a wonderful eye for the telling detail, and a use of language which is uncannily supple and sensuous. But her own story, which lies at the book's heart, speaks to any of us who have known more than ordinary sadness. She writes both movingly and, amazingly, wittily about her descent into psychotic depression; lays to rest innumerable ignorant ghosts about madness; and surfaces triumphantly to start a new life, of which this book is just one of the fruits.
Nowhere does Speller seem to be telling the story either to big herself up ("Whose sufferings are greater than mine?") or to elicit our sympathy. What she's doing seems to be looking for the truth among the lies all families tell each other -- weaving her own story in with that of her family and that, in turn, with the times in which they lived. The result is not only the unravelling of a fascinating emotional puzzle, but a view of the last century of history from the standpoint of a single family.
A pretty crackpot family, it must be said, lousy at intimacy and the expression of love, promiscuous, minatory, snobbish, self-inventing, shot through with occasional acts of heroism or great emotional generosity. Dukes, sausage-makers, beauties, cheats, shopkeepers, lunatics, self-deluding plutocrats, would-be artists, real artists, drunken real artists, seductions, fires, wounds, lovesick suicidal Poles... the list goes on.
But the really remarkable thing, as I said, is the brave and unflinching eye Speller brings to her own sectioning in what we have to call a lunatic asylum because it doesn't deserve to be called a hospital. Though there was precious little asylum there. Everyone, in the end, is in some way or other redeemed by her kindly eye. Except for the male charge nurse in the, yes, asylum, who repeatedly raped (the only word for it) the author in return for drugs. That she escaped undamaged is lucky; that she came out of it without terrible anger is remarkable. A complex, intricate, textured book, impossible to classify; but it reads with lucidity and charm and in the end is powerfully moving. If the Next New Thing is "MadLit", then The Sunlight On the Garden should be at the head of the list.