What makes a good memoir?

As a memoir writer who is still revising her memoir, I ask myself this quite often, and especially whenever I read a memoir that has the potential to be good but just doesn’t make it for me. One such is The Promise of Iceland, by Kari Gislason, UQP 2011. A friend loaned me this book, which she’d bought, she said, because she knew I have a desire to visit this small, isolated Arctic island nation.


Before I talk about my responses to this book, I’ll mention a review of four memoirs in the New York Times, by Noel Gezlinger. He refers to memoir as ‘this bloated genre’, and says:

 If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.

He gets stuck into this plague, as he sees it; the worthy memoirists are

… lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

However, having something extraordinary to write about need not produce a good memoir, and conversely, nor do I accept that we should only write memoirs if our lives have been extraordinary in some way, or that an ordinary life can not be written in an interesting and engaging way.

Kari Gislason was born to a British mother living in Iceland, who had an affair with a married Icelandic man. Kari’s father made his lover promise never to reveal his identity; this promise was extracted from Kari himself, when he revisited Iceland at the age of 17, in search of his father and his Icelandic identity. This is a recipe for a great story, especially since Iceland is a remote country with an extreme climate, and a culture that has evolved into postmodern urban life, but still retains much of its rural, ancient ways of thinking and behaving, as Gislason and others who have written about it bear witness. It is also the setting for a current phenomenon of the literary world, Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, a novel about the woman who has the distinction of being Iceland’s last person to be beheaded for murder. (I’ve ordered a copy of this book, which is not released till September, but already it’s a bestseller).

The central theme of Gislason’s memoir is his search for the (lost) remote father, who abandoned him and continues to abandon him by denying the biological and emotional bond. Such searches are rarely requited, and this story is no exception. But in the process, Kari renews his childhood bond with the country and the people, and henceforth, lives a divided life, moving between his adopted home, Brisbane, and his natal home. He falls in love with a Queensland woman, and takes her with him on an extended visit to a remote village in Iceland, where he works as a teacher of English, and she finds work in a sushi factory. They have a baby, and return to Australia; but Kari’s research (a PhD in traditional Icelandic culture) and his passion for Iceland take him back from time to time. Home, for him, is a divided state; it can never be one, whole, unquestioned.

Why am I disappointed by this book? I expected a creation of the world of Iceland, from a semi-outsider’s point of view. This is there, in snatches of description of landscape and scenes of Icelandic life. But the focus is nearly always kept on Kari’s emotional reactions and experiences, told in a way that rarely transcends the personal and grabs the reader, hauling them into the protagonist’s shoes. There are too many details about peripheral characters, his mother’s friend group when she lived there, his father’s other children, whom he finally meets, and his responses to the ups and downs of daily life there. And his other home, Brisbane, is vaguely sketched and does not become a realised ‘other’ home. The mystery and the meaning of this story do not stand out in strong enough relief against the minutiae of the narrator’s experiences.

I’m surprised that this book leaves me with the feeling it needs a strong editor, since Gislason is a lecturer in creative writing. But I know that we are not the best critics of our own writing. The fact the memoir has been published by one of our respected literary publishers does not reassure me about the publishing world. But perhaps other readers think this book IS a good memoir. Have you read it? What do you think makes a good memoir?



Filed under memoirs worth remembering, writing a memoir

7 responses to “What makes a good memoir?

  1. Louise Allan

    Thanks for your thoughts on what makes a good memoir. It sounds like this book had all the makings for a powerful story, but it just didn’t take you to the place and time — how disappointing! A reader doesn’t want to stay inside the narrator’s head — you want to get out and see what he’s seeing, hear what he’s hearing, and taste it and smell it, too.

  2. YOu’ve put your finger on it. Sensual description is so important; our senses create the world we see, and through their stimulation and the power of empathy, we visit other people’s worlds.

  3. I don’t know yet what makes a good memoir. I am working on it. Jim Hearn’s High Season is a memoir with pace, which I really enjoyed. And I enjoyed your post, Christina.

  4. Very interesting… I write fiction so I never have this problem! i am almost intrigued enough by what you write to read the book!

  5. In fact, the writing of a good memoir uses fictional techniques, and the principles of good narrative construction are the same; this is my experience, and it is comprehensively and convincingly explained by Tristine Rainer in her book, YOur Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography”, and Writing Memoir as Literature.
    If you do read Gislason’s memoir, let me know what you think of it!

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