Book Review: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

So, I want to preface everything I’m about to say with: I liked this memoir. I don’t know that I loved it, I’m curious to what extent reading Wild immediately before affected my interpretation of it, and most of what I’m about to say is more like the teasing out of a discussion that I’m trying to have with myself about the book. They’re conclusions I haven’t come to, ideas I’m jumbling around in my head.

The language and power of the emotion, particularly in the beginning, is amazing. I was drawn in, compelled to continue. I finished the book in under a day. Just sat down and read it. It opens with giving birth to a stillborn child and it just tugs you from there. It follows her through her childhood, her relationship to swimming, her escaping her oppressive and abusive home to go on to college to fuck up college to trying college again, trying and failing in marriages, through her life as a writer and on and on. It goes from beautifully abstract to almost exploitative-specific to stream of consciousness — but in the way that it should, I think.

So here are the things I’m teasing with:

Why, with so much detail to other potentially “private” matters, with so much focus on basically carnal sex, drug experimentation, the physicality of losing a child… why does she mention only in essentially two words the sexual abuse from her father? It felt like I was teased the entire way through. Yes or no? It’s not as if her father’s abuse was illegitimate without being sexual. He was a brute, controlling, his anger filled their entire house. It’s not as if I even needed to see it, but I wanted to really see it acknowledged, a contemplation of what part of it affected her. When someone asks if her dad was abusive, how, she says “sexually” and  yet that seems only a part of the abuse, because we see it in its other forms. And then I also wonder if it was necessary, to explain the sexual abuse, or if the narrative is complete without it. I think the greatest frustration I had was that the book in many ways seems to say, look, how open I am, I am so honest so real so raw and then this one place she chooses to be less than, and to make it obvious that she is not being fully open.

Sometimes I felt like the parts of her writing life were name-dropping. The parts about her writing life were honestly my least favorite. They seemed the most forced and unpoetic, the most tailored to a specific representation of herself. But it’s hard to write about being a writer and I might be particularly sensitive to it.

There were some parts of the narrative that were literally true that felt more magical-realism. A boyfriend turned husband who would literally fall asleep, as a defense mechanism, when she would fight with him. Her father losing his memory after a specific incidence. It’s not that these things are impossible, but the way she dealt with them felt more like metaphor than reality and the metaphor on top of being unlikely felt overdone.

But this is not me saying I didn’t like it. I read the thing in a day. After reading Wild, I think part of me was searching for someone I recognized again — since I could relate in ways to Cheryl Strayed, who seemed to have pain in her past but there was a specific incidence that pushed her to her breaking point, where as most of Yuknavitch’s life seemed to be that breaking point, an acting out of pain. Maybe it’s that in many ways I have too little patience for people who are dealing with so much. At many places (in both Strayed and Yuknavitch’s memoirs) I wondered: who is it that is loving these people? I’m certainly not saying they don’t deserve to be loved. What I’m saying is, loving them seems to be a hell of a challenge (speaking of mostly Yuknavitch) because of the chaos they invite to their lives. I am a chaos-avoider. I can’t see people bringing pain to themselves for long before I bail. So I was curious what they are giving to these friends, what value they’re providing, to make the friendship a worthwhile thing? And then, with Yuknavitch, any kind of friendship-worthiness she seemed to edit out. Like she would show us her down dirty raw disgusting so terrible I am persona, but not the nice things, the giving she must have done to have such dedicated friends.

What I’m saying is, there was very little I recognized in Yuknavitch. It was still worth reading. And if you’re someone who has dealt with a lot of chaos in your life, it might be a soothing read, somewhere that you can recognize yourself. But it’s also a good read, period, because it’s well crafted and interesting and compelling. It’ll stick with me, but in my head instead of in my bones.

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