Un­der­stand­ing the power of what is left un­said

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Diana Car­roll

DO you re­mem­ber the boy who cried wolf? Bri­anna Karp is the girl who cried ‘‘ I’m home­less’’ and a pub­lisher lis­tened. The Girl’s Guide to Home­less­ness is about as be­liev­able as Ae­sop’s mis­chievous shep­herd boy, which is a shame be­cause it does a dis­ser­vice to all the gen­uinely home­less peo­ple who need our sup­port and com­pas­sion.

There are no such ques­tions about in­tegrity or au­then­tic­ity in Claire Bid­well Smith’s ex­cel­lent mem­oir, The Rules of In­her­i­tance, ev­ery­thing The Girl’s Guide to Home­less­ness is not. Both writ­ers hail from the US west coast and each started her book as a blog, but there the sim­i­lar­i­ties would seem to end.

Karp lives in an ex­te­rior world: ev­ery­thing she does is a re­ac­tion to some ex­ter­nal force. Bid­well Smith in­hab­its a deeply in­te­rior world, where a thought or deed can play out mer­ci­lessly in the mind.

Bid­well Smith is the only child of a late mar­riage: her fa­ther is of­ten as­sumed to be her grand­fa­ther. She is 14 when both her par­ents are di­ag­nosed with can­cer. She is 18 when her mother dies and 24 when her fa­ther dies. With the im­pa­tience of youth, her mother’s death is an in­con­ve­nience. But this is a Pyrrhic vic­tory of cir­cum­stance over sen­ti­ment that haunts her un­ceas­ingly. While she de­lib­er­ately avoided the re­al­ity of her mother’s mor­tal­ity, she holds her fa­ther’s hand through his final mo­ments.

A strong fa­ther-daugh­ter bond is forged in these last de­bil­i­tat­ing months of can­cer care. ‘‘ I am glad she died first,’’ she says of her mother, ‘‘ oth­er­wise I would have buried my fa­ther with­out ever hav­ing known him.’’

The clar­ity of her self-re­flec­tion is ex­quis­ite and ex­cru­ci­at­ing. There is a pas­sion­ate sad­ness to her grief but the feel­ing of ab­so­lute alone­ness is the hard­est to bear. A mi­nor traf­fic ac­ci­dent leads to a ma­jor emo­tional break­down. ‘‘ This is the thing of it. The thing that leads me to those mo­ments when ev­ery part of me is scream­ing. I’m no­body’s most im­por­tant per­son.’’

The five stages of grief — de­nial, anger, bar­gain­ing, de­pres­sion and ac­cep­tance, from the work of Elis­a­beth Kubler-ross — mark the pas­sage of Bid­well Smith’s nar­ra­tive, mak­ing the book themed but non-lin­ear. She un­der­stands the power of the pause: some­times what is left un­said can be more pow­er­ful than what is spo­ken. Her prose is di­rect, con­sid­ered, el­e­gant. She flouts the rules of punc­tu­a­tion but in do­ing so re­moves a final bar­rier be­tween word and reader.

In con­trast, even the ti­tle of Karp’s book is mis­lead­ing. This is not a ‘‘ guide’’ to any­thing ex­cept squan­der­ing a life. Karp gives no ad­vice, no savvy sur­vival strate­gies, no in­sights into life on the mar­gins.

At the heart of this in­fu­ri­at­ing book is the de­ceit that Karp was ever ‘‘ home­less’’. She wasn’t. At no time was she des­ti­tute, broke, or on the street. She is not il­lit­er­ate, has no men­tal ill­ness and is not ad­dicted to any­thing other than her un­for­tu­nate boyfriend.

When the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit Orange County, Cal­i­for­nia, Karp lost her job as a mar­ket­ing as­sis­tant and was briefly un­em­ployed. No longer able to af­ford the rent on her beach­side cot­tage, she es­chews the con­ven­tional cheap hous­ing choices to live in a trailer home she in­her­ited af­ter her fa­ther’s sui­cide. Mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, and many Aus­tralians, live in mo­bile homes but they are not home­less.

Driv­ing her truck, she is ‘‘ a tall woman with flam­ing red hair, with a jowly and im­pos­ing neapoli­tan mas­tiff ... in tow’’. Fezzik, the large and vo­ra­cious mutt, is the real rea­son Karp de­cides to live in the trailer rather than find a flat or af­ford­able share house. When life with Fezzik be­comes un­ten­able, she boards him at a doggy ho­tel.

In­stead of pay­ing rent in a trailer park, Karp takes ad­van­tage of a Wal­mart pol­icy al­low­ing trail­ers to stay overnight in their carparks free of charge. She suf­fers the pri­va­tion of no run­ning water by buy­ing a gym mem­ber­ship to use the show­ers; the lo­cal Star­bucks pow­ers her lap­top and phone while she mo­nop­o­lises the comfy chairs.

From here, the book plunges into the abyss of tele­movie melo­drama. A transat­lantic in­ter­net ro­mance goes cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong. The de­noue­ment to this sorry af­fair has to be read to be be­lieved or not.

From the out­set, there are un­com­fort­able ques­tions about the in­tegrity of the nar­ra­tive.

The Girl’s Guide to Home­less­ness may be­long to the blurry genre of ‘‘ fac­tion’’, where ‘‘ what hap­pened’’ and ‘‘ what I re­mem­ber’’ is in­dis­tin­guish­able from ‘‘ what I think’’ or ‘‘ what I be­lieve’’. The suc­cess of Karp’s blog saw her be­come the face of ‘‘ Brand Home­less’’. She aims to dis­em­power her crit­ics by say­ing ‘‘ it’s im­por­tant to de­bunk such stereo­types and mis­per­cep­tions about what it means to be home­less’’.

Bid­well Smith ul­ti­mately found strength through her grief and now works in hospice care, help­ing oth­ers to face death. She also be­came some­one’s ‘‘ most im­por­tant per­son’’ when she met her now-hus­band Greg. The Rules of In­her­i­tance ends with ‘‘ a per­fect bub­ble of golden af­ter­noon light’’, a beau­ti­ful im­age to close an emo­tion­ally de­mand­ing book about the power of love and loss. Diana Car­roll teaches creative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of South Australia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.