The Mirror Book: A Memoir
RHNZ Vintage / Penguin
Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir is a wild ride – a must. But it’s also rather ludicrous. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a good time while you’re reading it. I have tried to forget it ever since – the fact that I can’t, quite, is why I’m now writing whatever sort of review this ends up being.
I found almost everyone unlikeable – which of course makes for a great reading experience, particularly since this is the lives of other people. I don’t know them. And after reading this I hope to never meet any of the people written about here.
Charlotte is a successful NZ author. And the daughter of CK Stead. One of the people there at the table when the NZ Literary Scene was carved off and divided out over a dinner or two with the likes of Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and Kevin Ireland in attendance. I’ve not read much Stead – but I know he counts. And though his countenance (Resting Bitch Face’s Halloween mask) puts me off his work that’s far more my problem than his. I’ve not read anything book-length by Charlotte before. As with her father’s work, I know the reviews, the nit-picky letters to editors and some essays. And from that alone I know they’re ‘good’.
This Mirror Book has been timed to arrive after (CK) Karl Stead delivered his own tome of importance, a lofty three-volume set of memoirs. He and his wife Kay, Charlotte’s mother, are now in their late-80s. They don’t always sound like great parents. Because parents are not always great at a job that plays out in real time, 24/7 for years on end. We remember the bad days more than the good ones, many of us, hope not to repeat them, wish for the best. That’s the strategy pretty much for parenting. Do your best, keep your kids alive. When they reach the point that they have their own children, or at least their own lives, you don’t cast them entirely free but your worry-time is reduced. Love can last forever. But not if it was barely ever there.
While this is never quite Mommie Dearest, it’s clear Charlotte has dug deep into the ‘bad’ memories and glosses over the no doubt many great ones. It’s also clear that the villain here is Kay. Grimshaw not only throws her mother under the bus she then gets behind the wheel, lines her up, reverses, back to first gear, back into reverse. Her dad doesn’t get off lightly. He’s the big bad wolf that bellows and grunts and anyone gonna be taking family material and making fiction from it, it gon’ be Karl! Them’s his rules. Despite constantly telling Charlotte that any of the trauma is good material and to go make a story of it, the picture emerges that it was only ever Karl that was really allowed to do that.
Triggered by an affair (Grimshaw’s husband leaves for another woman) Charlotte sets herself down to writing and you can almost feel the furious scribbles, as if the aim to ‘understand’ her upbringing and place the blame on her parents (un)fairly and squarely is a job for today and today only. When tomorrow comes she will put everything in a box, light her past life on fire and drive off towards a zero-empathy future where she hopes to feel unburdened of any existential crisis and just kick back listening to the Eurythmics.
I was moved by some of the writing, the aim for authentic examination, the rush that came from idyllic scene-setting and a foreboding family-drama tension (you can almost imagine a textural musical score playing out in your head as you read the first 40 pages or so). But I very quickly felt so sorry for the two ugly old ogres – ugly being the descriptor for so many of their actions by the way. Our parents, if we’re lucky to have them late into our life, have not only lived different lives – far different from us – they’ve also put that on hold to have the family, and to make of that what they do. Many of us grow up to do the same. Or don’t quite grow up but attempt the same…
Grimshaw seem to want a universal standard of parenting. She learned from her parents’ mistakes. But, you know what, so did they!
She is good when she’s probing at the fact that her mother must have suffered unspeakable trauma – Kay literally never speaks of it, not only that, she cackles at the misfortune of others and encourages prankster behaviour, loving cheekiness and even endorsing petty crime. But these added-on pot-shots aren’t helpful on the back of attempting empathy (something Charlotte is so new to that you can see she gives up after a first breathe). It also brings up the towering frustration here – which is, as an adult, you must, to some degree at least, own your shit! Own your trauma, disbelief, frustration and shortcomings. Grimshaw retrospectively calls her mother out for being bad at the job. Then she goes on to tell us that she folded away her own bad streak, like a piece of dirty laundry she wanted to keep in the nostalgia-drawer, and simply became one of the best mothers ever.
It’s disingenuous. And bewilderingly lacking in self-awareness.
Though there is clearly a gaslighting of sorts – from Karl on Kay, and from Karl and Kay on the family as a whole – Charlotte tells out-of-school and buried-deep tales of neglect from what still plays out so often as actually for the most part a rather charmed life. They were bad parents when they took the kids all around Europe several times. I’m not saying that would excuse any bad behaviour – but some people grow up and the big trip is a car ride to get takeaways once or twice a year. Charlotte tells us about overseas posting her, writer in residency there. It’s all just something that happens you see when your dad is a hard-working, well-regarded writer.
This stinks of literary importance – a pedigree that worked. Until it didn’t.
And so the overall tone that emerges is one I’d describe as Literary Elder Abuse.
I didn’t want to like Kay and I don’t. I didn’t want to like Karl and I don’t. But I have no sympathy for Charlotte here at all. And that probably wasn’t her goal. But jesus fucking christ, she throws her siblings under the bus, outing stories about them and largely discrediting their character at various points, all the while trumpeting the virtues she was able to claw on to as an adult. Her siblings didn’t actually need to be in the book. They’re background extras at best. But the only purchase we can get on them here is that they were shit at their job too: they weren’t the best siblings in the world. Grimshaw wasn’t the best child, she’ll admit to an off-the-rails adolescence (which brings with it some harrowing trauma – and she clearly felt no way of being able to unpack that at the time and that’s distressing) but apparently she was the best adult possible, and through no fault of her own her husband left her, her parents stopped talking to her and she discovered she had no female friends. (That’s mum’s fault too, btw).
There’s probably a bit of a battle going on about being the better writer too. Her dad, notorious for several affairs, which he sorta comes clean to – but only on his terms of course – has ‘contextualised’ them as he chooses to in his books and his wife is okay with it. Apparently. And that is their business ultimately. Charlotte is not okay with it but not only that, needs everyone to be okay with her version of her events.
She actually believes she’s written a tribute to her parents. In equally disingenuous or just deluded interviews since the book’s release she think she’s lifted a lid on her complicated parents in an effort to understand them.
Fascinating questions pile up – around the truth in your own story and what it means to tell it and who gets to be associated, basically assigned a role as collateral damage. But I couldn’t shake the fact that in her all-about-me quest to wonder why she was having a tough time in her early 50s she took it all out on her aging/aged parents. That’s a lot to dump on them and with little chance of either a satisfactory answer or even bite-back. When people get older their world is allowed to shrink down to what matters to them – it can happen at any age, but post-retirement I reckon you’ve certainly earned it. But no, Grimshaw expects – all but demands – that people nearing their 90s most be concerned for her, and presumably at the expense of anyone else in their lives for that matter.
This is a book where no one wins. Except possibly the reader.