a prize-winning memoir

I recently offered to review My LIfe in a Pea Soup by Lisa Nops for a state newspaper.  The main reason I asked to review it was curiosity; it had been awarded the Finch Memoir Prize for 2012, which my memoir was shortlisted for. I wanted to see what the judges thought was a prize winner. I didn’t think too much about the ethical problems of reviewing a book that had been judged better than mine; I wanted to judge for myself.

I was disappointed by the memoir, and then had the dilemma of writing a review which was fair to it, while not compromising my own values, and being true to the cause which I think all reviewers sign up for: the assessment of published writing against certain standards. These standards are not written in stone, and they vary from genre to genre, and of course, there is a large subjective element, because, just as all writing is personal, so is reviewing, and so is judging.

In the review, I had to say, in a nutshell, that although this was an interesting and readable story, it is not memorable, and does not have what I would expect if I were a judge: outstanding literary merit. That sounds a bit precious, but what I mean by a literary memoir is one that makes you pause, that surprises you, catches your imagination and opens the doorway to someone else’s world, so that you enter and dwell there for a while and come out changed and uplifted. This is done by the magic of words: the words that are chosen, the way they are arranged, the structuring metaphors, the authentic and individual voice of the author. And behind the words, the depths of the experience, the intimacy of the narrator’s world, where we are invited to listen, to share, to understand another’s experience. I’m sure there are lots more, perhaps better, ways to describe a good, well-written, memorable piece of writing, but that’s a start.

After reading My Life in a Pea Soup,  I moved on to two other memoirs written by Australian women in recent years, and these did not disappoint me. I’ve written a guest post on these, and on Rachel Robertson’s Reaching One Thousand, for a blog on Australian literature; I’ll post news of this review on this site when it is published, so you can read it if you want to.

Reading these two memoirs, and revisiting Robertson’s, reassured me that it wasn’t just sour grapes that made me feel underwhelmed when I read My Life in a Pea Soup. There are many memoirs about parenting a child with a disability, and autism is a lifelong disorder that appears to be increasing in the population, for unknown reasons. So it is a condition which affects many of us, and if we have not come across it in our own family, we may well have friends whose lives are affected by it. Movies have been made about it, memoirs and novels written about it, as well as by people with the condition. A common thread in the ones I have read is that autism is not immediately obvious in a very young child, and it may take some years for the parents to recognise that there is a difference from the norm, and to seek help, in the form of diagnosis and services. The narratives of this journey tend to follow a curve through gradual realisation, the emotional turmoil of living with and coming to terms with the child’s difference, the frustration of trying to find answers and waiting for professional help, the adjustment to a family life that can never be what what was expected, and gradual acceptance of a different kind of life.

Nops’s memoir follows this pattern, and is set against the backdrop of expatriate life in Sri Lanka and Bahrein, before the family return to Australia. The metaphor she uses to structure her narrative is announced in the title. She says she has “spent twelve years in this murky soup”, but recently, she has started to see more clearly. By the time the story finishes, Sally is thirteen years old, has a vocabulary of only a few words,  is often ill with digestive problems, and still wears nappies. When they return to Sydney, Lisa is diagnosed with breast cancer. She is successfully treated for this, but loses her father in the same year. Through all these trials, she dedicates herself to Sally, and her marriage with her husband survives and is strengthened by all they go through, together and apart (his work separates him from them for long periods in different phases of their life). Her voice is honest, without self-pity, and is one that many women will feel comfortable and at home with. She is a middle class woman who has lived a materially comfortable life, and enjoyed the privileges of wealth and servants as an expatriate in foreign countries. What makes her story different is how it diverges from these middle class patterns, which fail to sustain a family faced with disability of this magnitude.

So My Life in a Pea Soup is a success story, and it is well told. In a concluding note, Nops confesses that writing their story began as a hobby, a luxury, and became therapy. I’m glad she wrote it, and I’m glad she won the prize of $10,000 and publication.

But I am disappointed that a major prize for an unpublished memoir should go to a narrative that, although it is readable and interesting, does not have the literary quality that I expect of a major prizewinner. So, for instance, after relating a phase of anger against the system which underfunds services for the disabled and those who care for them, she concludes “It wasn’t the brightest time in  my life.” This flat, clichéd understatement closes off, rather than opens up, the reader’s empathy for her situation. There are many moments like this, when language does not stretch far enough, and she falls back on platitudes, like “I was getting hot and bothered”. Platitudes are OK if they’re used in the course of dialogue to give a certain flavour to the conversation, but are a lazy way of describing those moments when we are up against something we don’t understand or can’t change.

I won’t try and dissect it any further; I’m interested to hear what other readers think of it. I haven’t read any other reviews of it yet apart from the publisher’s.

What do you think makes a good memoir?

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11 Comments

Filed under Finch Memoir Prize 2012

11 responses to “a prize-winning memoir

  1. To me the strength of a good memoir is all in the writing, Christina, and as you say the extent to which the writing gives you cause to pause and reconsider, and the degree to which it enables you to enter into someone else’s world, whether similar or different from your own and to imagine yourself in there.

  2. You’ve said it well and succinctly, Lis. Imagination, empathy are the bridges between writer and reader, and I think memoir is a wonderful way of opening other people’s lives to us; far better than most of the documentaries I’ve seen, like, for instance, Australian Story, which I rarely watch now, because it usually seems to be gilding the lily, and too often is about celebrities (like Gina Hancock, Diana Bliss, etc.) There have been some very moving ones, but they are few and far between. I prefer the printed page for memoir, because it is more direct in one way, and more indirect in another, in that it is often the space between the lines that allows us to imagine what it is like to be in that story.

  3. Christine, thanks for this post and for your honesty. Commiserations, too, on not winning such a wonderful prize. I hope you get another chance at publication.

    I’m not a memoir reader, as a rule, but I’ve been trying to get out of my comfort zone for the AWW challenge this year and have made a point of reading genres I’m not familiar with. I’ve been rewarded with some marvellous stories. Have you read Virginia Lloyd’s memoir, The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement? It’s beautifully written and very moving.

  4. Sorry about my typo for your name, Christina!

  5. No need to apologize, Elizabeth! But thank you for taking the trouble to. And snap! Lloyd’s memoir is one that I’ve just reviewed for the guest blog I mentioned. It is wonderful, and extremely well crafted. Later, I’d like to write a separate blog on it. My library copy is in large print, which put me off at first, but didn’t deter me, but it’s a book I want to keep on my shelf, so will buy my own copy.

    • Oh, I’d love to read your guest blog review – is it up yet? – and your own blog post when you’ve written it. My copy was from the library and it’s in octavo size (I think), beautifully produced with a very readable font and layout. It was one of the aspects of the book I really liked, the materiality of the book itself. Glad to hear the Large Print version didn’t put you off! it is a wonderful book and it’s so nice to share my enthusiasm.

  6. Not yet, Elizabeth. I’ll post news of it on this blog when it is. I wrote it yesterday. I’ll order my copy of The Young Widow’s Book tomorrow, and make sure I get a nice format. Your comment on materiality is interesting, because it’s clear from the memoir that physicality — the sight, placement, smell, look and sound of things is very important to her, and the fact that the house is disintegrating around them while her husband is dying is counterpointed with her devotion to its restoration once he is gone.

    • You’re so right, and yet I didn’t find the metaphor intrusive. The sign of a well-crafted book.

      • Yes, there was nothing clunky or tacked-on about it. It felt integrated and necessary.

      • Dear Hazel

        In response to your comment, which for some reason WordPress has printed below this reply:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. It’s good to have a dissenting view! I’d like to respond, first, by answering your comments about the reviewing process. I can’t speak for other reviewers, only for myself. it is a very subjective and individual practice. For my part, my responses to a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, are primarily intuitive/emotional/aesthetic/cognitive in that order (if it’s possible to separate them). That is, I don’t set out to analyse a book, especially fiction or life writing. I go on whether I am empathically engaged with the subject matter and how it is presented. In the case of Lisa Nops’s memoir, I was empathically engaged with the subject matter, her child’s autism and how she learned to live with it and meet the challenges, but I didn’t feel aesthetically inspired and enriched, or engaged on the cognitive level. That is, I didn’t find her literary style particularly memorable, original or arresting. I agree, it is a very readable book, unpretentious and simple, and the author’s character, as well as her daughter’s and her husband’s, shine through.

        My criteria for a winner of a major literary prize include things like originality of language and thought, clarity and force of imagery, the arrangement of a story in a narrative that keeps you wanting to know more, and to return. I also look for a structuring metaphor or imaginative/emotional core of meaning that carries the narrative through to its end.

        I’m sure that Lisa Nops would be very glad to know how much you enjoyed her story, and I imagine many other readers feel the same way.

        As I said, judgements are subjective.

  7. H Edmondson

    Christina,
    I have to disagree with your review.
    I feel that reviewers are often consumed by what they do. The review process can be highly technical and overly analytical. In doing reviews for the purposes of guiding the public many positive qualities of a book and the bigger picture are lost.

    I am unashamed to say that I have many interests and responsibilities other than reading and that it may take me several weeks or months to finish a book. However, I enjoyed ‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops so much that I finished it in four days.

    The endearing qualities that appealed most to me were the readability and flow of the book and the honesty. I believe that Lisa’s personality comes through the book and I feel privileged to have been allowed into her life in this way.

    It is a very unpretentious book in my opinion and its simplicity is a characteristic seen in other award winning authors.

    H Edmondson

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