The Liberty Tree by Suzanne Harrington

16th Aug 2013

The Liberty Tree
Memoirs can be a difficult read, can’t they? Being invited into someone’s private world to snoop around their innermost feelings is as punishing as it is pleasing. However, most memoirists work hard to make sure you are comfortable, that you don’t feel like an outsider.

Not so Suzanne Harrington, who instead works hard to keep the reader at arm’s length in The Liberty Tree, her first book.

This book isn’t for us, you see – it’s for Harrington’s children, and she writes directly to them. Like overhearing a really juicy personal conversation or reading the most salacious page of a stranger’s diary, the effect is compelling. We feel intrusive for spying: this is their story, not ours.

And what a story it is. Harrington shares with her children – only five and three years old when their father hanged himself – the true-life tale of the seven years, two months and seventeen days that she knew Leo.

This is no rose-tinted love letter to a dead husband and father...This is no rose-tinted love letter to a dead husband and father, though – neither parent comes off well in Harrington’s book. She is brutally honest about flaws on both sides – her alcoholism and the accompanying self-absorption, his emotional immaturity. This is indeed “the story of a suicide written by a drunk.”

That story begins at a party in the late-90s, and takes in London, and a hell of a lot of drugs; Brighton, and homelessness, happiness and heartache; and India, and the gradual disintegration of a marriage that has only just begun.

Harrington’s writing isn’t sentimental. She has a matter-of-fact, confessional style that lends itself to this kind of memoir. In the final chapters of The Liberty Tree – the weeks preceding Leo’s death, and its aftermath – her tone shifts imperceptibly, a reflection perhaps of her sobriety and increasing strength.

In writing The Liberty Tree, Harrington has bequeathed to her children a great gift. This will be difficult reading for them, as indeed it is for us. Their dead father was a real person, with real problems and real failings. Their mother was an alcoholic who, at times, struggled to embrace motherhood.

Ultimately, though, it is the story of a family surviving. Smaller, yes. But hopeful, and full of love.

“Only you can make your own happy ending”, Harrington tells her children at the start of the book. Through the confusion of suicide, depression, and addiction, one hopes this behind-the-scenes account of their own lives will help them do just that.

The Liberty Tree was published by Atlantic Books on 4th July and is available in paperback now.

Laura Brown