Mem­oir strikes com­mon chord

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jo Case

The Poet’s Wife By Mandy Sayer Allen & Un­win, 432pp, $32.99

‘NO one will take you se­ri­ously as a writer if all you can do is write about yourself,’’ said Mandy Sayer’s first hus­band, African-Amer­i­can poet Yusef Ko­mun­yakaa, when she was pub­li­cis­ing her first (semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal) novel, Mood In­digo. But Sayer’s life writ­ing has been taken very se­ri­ously in­deed, win­ning mul­ti­ple awards.

Her first mem­oir, Dream­time Alice (2000), told the story of her years per­form­ing on the streets of New York and New Or­leans, tap­danc­ing as one-half of a duo with her ec­cen­tric, flawed, much-loved fa­ther, Gerry. Her sec­ond, Ve­loc­ity (2005), re­wound to ex­plore Sayer’s frac­tured child­hood and ado­les­cence in the shadow of her par­ents’ re­peated sep­a­ra­tions and re­uni­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing years on the run (with her mother) from an abu­sive step­fa­ther.

Both are text­book ex­am­ples of mem­oir at its best, com­bin­ing en­gross­ing sto­ry­telling (and un­usual sto­ries) with metic­u­lous per­sonal in­sight that coaxes the uni­ver­sal out of the par­tic­u­lar. Like fel­low three-time mem­oirist Mary Karr ( The Liar’s Club, Cherry, Lit), Sayer tells the dark truth of grow­ing up in poverty in a dys­func­tional, ec­cen­tric fam­ily and man­ages to im­bue her telling with a deep, com­plex fa­mil­ial love and a steely lack of self-pity.

The Poet’s Wife takes up where Dream­time Alice left off: we meet Mandy as a self-de­scribed hobo liv­ing with her fa­ther in a closet-sized room be­hind a witch­craft shop in New Or­leans. By the end of the book, she is study­ing for a PhD in English lit­er­a­ture, has pub­lished three nov­els and is un­der con­tract to write her first mem­oir. Subti­tled A Mem­oir of a Mar­riage, this book is also about self-cre­ation.

The themes are twinned; her hus­band, Yusef, is a mas­ter of the lat­ter. He has changed his name, al­tered his birth­date and adopts dif­fer­ent ac­cents and per­sonae ac­cord­ing to who he’s with. He trans­formed him­self from an un­edu- cated Viet­nam War vet­eran from an abu­sive back­ground to a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and Pulitzer prize-win­ning poet and is re­lent­lessly self­vig­i­lant as a re­sult. Yusef ex­plains his shapeshift­ing be­hav­iour as “switch­ing codes’’, some­thing he de­scribes as in­grained and nec­es­sary for black south­ern­ers. Sayer won­ders, early in their re­la­tion­ship and as a nar­ra­tor, “which code rep­re­sented the real Yusef’’. Through­out their 10-year mar­riage, she at­tempted to de­code his be­hav­iour, from care­fully read­ing his body lan­guage to snoop­ing through his study and brief­case for clues of a par­al­lel life and the truth about the other women who al­ways hov­ered at the fringes of their re­la­tion­ship.

The sec­ond mys­tery Sayer in­ves­ti­gates in this book is a deeper one: what held her in her mar­riage so long when from the dis­tance of the present it was vis­i­bly dam­ag­ing? And how did she go from a con­fi­dent, in­de­pen­dent street per­former to an anx­ious, sub­servient wife caged by her own self-doubt? In a way, this is a di­vorce mem­oir: we know from the be­gin­ning how this will end, so we’re watch­ing the hair­line frac­tures ap­pear in the struc­ture of the mar­riage and wait­ing for them to break it apart. What

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