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Five Challenging Memoirs by Remarkable Women Writers

3rd Nov 2014

Five Challenging Memoirs by Remarkable Women Writers
Novelist and playwright Alice Jolly is publishing a memoir with Unbound which is called 'Dead Babies and Seaside Towns'.  In writing it, she had to learn the difference between self-censorship and editing.  Along the way she was inspired by startling honest memoirs written by women. Here she shares her recommendations with For Books' Sake...

Can I have a quick rant?  Thank you.  One of the things I really, really hate is when the judges of literary prizes complain that books written by women are ‘depressing.’

I have seldom read a ‘depressing’ book.  I have read plenty of books that tackle difficult subject matter but I don’t label them as ‘depressing.’  

To me they are simply books that aim to encompass the whole of life – including the dark stuff that our feel-good-positive-thinking society so often tries to airbrush out. 

When I read a book which tackles a challenging subject honestly, I often find, paradoxically, that I feel cleansed, humbled, affirmed, recognised, invigorated. Too many people are living anaesthetised lives.  Because they avoid pain they can’t feel pleasure…

Anyway, rant over.  You get the point.  Let’s get on to five challenging memoirs by remarkable women writers which helped and inspired me when I was writing my own ‘challenging’ book.

A Woman in Berlin – Anonymous

This is the most extra-ordinary memoir I have ever read.  A Woman in Berlin is a diary written by a woman who was in Berlin in 1945 when the Germans’ lost the War and the Russian Army took over the city.

It is about rape – but not in the way you expect.  Here the women are living continually with their ‘boyfriends’ – cooking for them, laughing at their jokes.  The strategy is to choose a high ranking ‘boyfriend’ in order to keep the others away.  And anyway, everyone is starving, so having sex for a half a loaf of bread looks like a reasonable option.

The woman who wrote this book was not a professional writer but the details she chooses and her unflinching eye make the writing vivid, universal, luminous.  She takes you right to that one apartment block, that one street in Berlin and you can’t get out, just as she couldn’t.

True to Both My Selves – Katrin Fitzherbert

True to Both My Selves is another German memoir.  This one tells the story of three generations of a family torn apart by the two Anglo-German conflicts of the last century.

At the heart of the book is the author’s description of being a member of The Hitler Youth.  How very easy it would have been for her to tells us what we expect to hear: The Nazis were all evil, everyone acted against their will.  

Instead she shows that, through the eyes of a nine year old,  The Hitler Youth was actually for her great fun (a lot of camping and comradeship) and that some of the values she learned there were important to her then – and remained important to her long after she escaped to England.  

Her account is fascinating because it does reveal how a whole nation was duped and how a young girl experienced life at face value, entirely missing the wider ideology. 

Relative Stranger: A Life After Death – Mary Loudon

Relative Stranger begins with the writer, Mary Loudon, on the ski slopes with her happy, affluent family.  Her mobile rings.  Her schizophrenic sister has been found dead in a squat in Bristol.

Why didn’t she do more to help her sister?  That’s the painful question Mary Loudon asks herself as she writes her story.  Again and again she sticks her finger into the wound, trying desperately to understand.

The beauty of the book lies in what she discovers about the random group of people in a Bristol suburb who offered small acts of kindness to someone who was desperately difficult to befriend.

Finally, all you understand is that there are no answers to the tragedy of severe schizophrenia. 

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle is a book about a unique childhood.  In many ways, Jeannette Wall’s parents were admirable people.  They were creative and wanted to live an anti-consumerist life.  The only problem was that they took their principles too far – much too far.  

The children lived in cardboard boxes, ate mouldy food, lived without running running water, heating, electricity – and this wasn’t poverty, it was choice.  

The strength of the book lies in the fact that Jeannette Walls makes no judgement.  She lays it all out and lets the reader decide.  And you never can quite decide.  Were her parents terrible people?  Or just people who wanted to live differently and weren’t prepared to compromise?

Blue Sky July – Nia Wyn

Blue Sky July is a tiny, quiet book written by a hugely gifted Welsh writer.  Nia Wyn’s son was born with severe disabilities but she refused to give up on him, sacrificed her marriage and everything else to realise his potential. 

It is a lyrical, poetic book where the writer really shows how people in desperate situations learn the skill of savouring every pleasure, however small.  It is also a hymn to the strength of a mother’s love and what it can achieve.  Moving, humbling and finally uplifting – it is a small masterpiece.

 – Alice Jolly

Alice’s memoir ‘Dead Babies and Seaside Towns’ will be published by Unbound in autumn 2015.  50% of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).  She’s crowd funding now so please support the book if you can by visiting Alice’s Unbound page here.