Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pain and Sorrow

Just coincidentally, two of my recent reads have centred on young women who find themselves in terrible situations. Although they are very different books, Kate Holden's In My Skin and Sylvia Plath's classic novel, The Bell Jar, share the ability to evoke the powerful emotions and crises in identity experienced by many young women.

Not many young women go through the experiences that Australian writer Kate Holden describes in her memoir, In My Skin, but it is her ability to describe those experiences in a way that explains them to the rest of us that is the real strength of this book. Holden spent most of her twenties in Melbourne hopelessly addicted to heroin, an addiction which eventually led to a period as a sex worker. It is not giving anything away to say that Holden has now conquered her addiction (and written this very successful memoir about it), but the desperate times and experiences depicted in this memoir are pretty harrowing stuff.

I have to admit that I found it absolutely fascinating to read about Holden's journey from middle-class, well-brought-up, arts graduate to junkie prostitute. I think I was so affected by this book because Holden's life seemed so familiar, so similar to mine, up until the point where everything began to spin out of control. In my mind, heroin addiction and prostitution are a million miles from my own personal experiences but Holden brings it right home, made me think that this might have happened to me or to my friends, that it is not something that just happens to people who are already 'messed up'.

The danger in this kind of memoir is that it could become voyeuristic, especially in its depiction of prostitution. Holden avoids this through her skillful writing, which is informative rather than titillating, and concentrates on the emotions of her experiences. Her honesty is refreshing- she openly admits that there were parts of prostitution and drug taking that she enjoyed- but she does not glamourise the life. The big question is what she will write next, having pretty thoroughly explored her autobiographical material in this book.

It is a reasonable assumption that Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar also covers mostly autobiographical terrain. The novel depicts the mental breakdown of its central character, Esther Greenwood, a young women working as an intern at a fashion magazine in Manhatten. Much like In My Skin I was struck by how honestly and realistically Plath describes the harrowing events of her novel. And yet this is not a depressing book. Esther could be any of us, she has moments of joy as well as great overwhelming sadness. There is even some humour in the book, particularly in the early chapters, something I found surprising and endearing.

Plath is one of my favourite writers, not so much for the dark topics that she covers and that make her so beloved of a certain type of moody teenager, but for the clarity and power of her words. Each sentence seems balanced and poised, the language straightforward and matter of fact, poetic in its simplicity. Take this passage from early on in The Bell Jar:

The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury. I thought of crawling in between the bed-sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope. I decided to take a hot bath.

Both of these books remove the 'otherness' associated with those in society who go through great trauma. Mental illness and drug addiction obviously effect all sorts of people, and books like these are invaluable for reminding us of this fact. That they are beautifully and skilfully written makes them even more successful.


Sarah said...

I saw Kate Holden on Australian Story
some time ago, and have meant to read her memoir since. I afraid it might be voyeuristic,but it sounds like it
avoids this.

jess said...

I wish I'd seen that interview! Don't get me wrong, this book isn't for the faint-hearted but I felt she dealt with the material really well.

Kailana said...

I think I should read both of this books. I own The Bell Jar, have forever, but the other one looks good, too!

jess said...

Yes, I'd had The Bell Jar on my shelf for ages too. Glad I finally read it.

Life is better barefoot said...

These days I tend to go for easy read (doesn't matter if you're interrupted mid sentence) books but you've inspired me to try and stimulate my brain with a more serious read... right after I've numbed it by watching masterchef!

jess said...

He he. I do my fair bit of mind-numbing tv watching too, don't worry.
Would like to hear how your reading goes- love your blog by the way!

Smithereens said...

Nice post! Makes me want to read the Bell Jar again. I read it when I was a teenager and I guess it was too early, I didn't fully understand it.