Love, longing and loss
Ysenda Maxtone Graham can’t resist another painfully honest memoir from a member of one of Britain’s leading literary families
Memoir The Truth Game Vanessa Nicolson (Quartet Books, £15)
THAT telltale missing ‘h’ in ‘Nicolson’: it must be yet another book from the sissinghurst family, who (as was written about the Fraser family) are so prodigiously literary ‘that they might as well give birth in the window of Whsmith’. i applaud the prodigiousness of the Nicolsons: i can never resist picking up a book by yet another one of them, craving further insights into the family for whom box hedges and familial pain are so exquisitely intertwined.
This one is by Vanessa, the child of Nigel’s brother Ben and his wife, Luisa Vertova. it’s a followup memoir to her acclaimed Have You Been Good?. here, she rakes over the same material: parents who divorced when she was seven; impossibly volatile italian mother; adorable father who was congenitally gay, hence hopelessly failing marriage; teenagehood of great insecurity and neediness; adulthood of recurring suicidal urges; and the tragedy of losing her daughter Rosa, who died of an epileptic seizure in a swimming pool at the age of 19. so much pain, and it’s all still pretty raw here.
she divides the book into 12 chapters, each with the name of a person who has meant something to her: these people are the prisms through which she examines her life. The chapters vary in quality. The first, ‘Father’, about Ben, is fascinating. Written in the third person, it gives a glimpse of the sweet, affectionate relationship she had with her father.
she quotes at length from Ben’s diary entries about ‘David’, the oxford undergraduate he was passionately in love with. in selftormenting style, Ben describes his pain when the fickle David falls out of love with him a year later. ‘Then don’t get married to a woman, if you’re gay!’ we want to shout at him now, but he did, and it was a disaster.
Then, we have ‘Julie’, about the girl who briefly lived in the same building in Florence in which Vanessa lived with her grandparents after her parents’ divorce (‘Nonna died, Nonno became crazy and my mother depressed, all in the space of a few weeks’).
Then comes ‘Mr Right’, about the beautiful boy she was infatuated with at university. They slept together and she admitted to him the next morning that she had been in love with him for ages and that totally put him off.
Then comes ‘Pat’, about a complicated friendship: both girls were ‘longing for affection, floundering in an age of unfettered sexual freedom’ and so on. This is where it can all get a bit meandering and self-indulgent: Miss Nicolson draws us into longforgotten areas of angst, writing things such as ‘if you should ever see this, Pat, you may well feel further aggrieved’.
so much raw pain: there’s a chapter called ‘Em & Jean’, in which she describes her stay in a horrible psychiatric institution when her daughters were young: Em and Jean were in her ward and all three were miserable in different ways but became close.
There’s another chapter called ‘Adam’, which i expected to be about her first cousin Adam Nicolson, but the Adam in question was actually the boyfriend of Rosa. Vanessa meets him after Rosa’s death and admits that she sent him a message from Rosa’s Facebook page after her death, saying ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit too soon to fall in love again?’.
That is a brave thing to confess to a single person, let alone to publish in a book, but Vanessa has a strong confessional urge. she and her father used to play ‘the truth game’, asking each other searching questions demanding the truth, and this book is an eye-opening continuation of that dangerous game.
Vanessa as a teenager with her father Ben Nicolson, 1973