Lorna Sage is known as an influential literary critic and college professor. This memoir, prompted by the death of Sage’s mother, travels through the author’s young life, attempting to make connections between the three generations of family that mold her into a woman. The book struggles, but improves as it progresses, to create a believably authentic portrait of Sage’s life.
The narrative starts with Sage as a precocious child being raised by her grandparents and mother on a vicarage in the squalid Welsh town of Hanmer. Life on the vicarage feels unrealistic as Sage paints a bitter, almost gothic picture of her grandparent’s failed marriage and the general filth that pervades the house, the town and herself. Her grandfather, the vice-ridden vicar, is an alcoholic adulterer who even has an affair with his daughter’s best friend. Emphasizing the dirt, both literal and figurative, Sage is plagued by lice. Her family refuses to buy the medicated shampoo necessary for killing the bugs in a futile attempt to save face. Scandal constantly enshrouds the house.
Although Sage gives the details of vicarage life frankly and without self-pity, the narrative is too concerned with shocking the reader. The extent to which Sage exaggerates the bitterness and squalor of the household is manipulative enough to make the reader rebel and doubt the authenticity of the representation.
After the vicar’s death and her father’s return home from the war, Sage moves into a council house. The new environment showcases the happy marriage of Sage’s parents. Sage attributes the difference between hergrandparents’ loathsome relationship and her parents’ loving one to her mother’s revulsion from the argument-filled atmosphere in which she grew up. Sage’s mother fell as a child and chipped her two front teeth while running down the stairs to separate her feuding parents. Her crowned teeth are a constant reminder of a bad home life, one she does not wish to recreate with her husband.
But the bad blood skips a generation. Sage “had acquired from Grandpa (bad blood!) vanity, ambition and discontent along with literacy.” Yet though Sage is vain and selfish, she is also clever, shy and a book-lover. Interestingly, she never learns how to tell time but can translate Latin effortlessly.
In school she meets alienation and childish desires for popularity. As she grows, her obsession with books and girls turns into one with books and boys. She also discovers a direction for her ambition—school and eventually university.
As part of her bad blood, Sage also inherits her grandfather’s moral laxity, according to her parents. At the age of sixteen she becomes pregnant and marries, much to her parents’ dismay. Sage is expected to give up and accept her plight as a teenage mother and failed scholar. She does not do as expected.
Sage’s descriptions of places and events are very detailed, but littered with a handful of awful, misplaced similes. “It was all vaguely shocking, like being tickled by a policeman” is an example. Many of these figures of speech seem decorative without adding anything to the passage; instead, they take away.
Still, the transformation of a shy, uncertain girl to a confident young woman is clearly woven throughout the book. Her family, surroundings and bad blood all add to Sage’s disadvantages and concurrently to her ability to overcome them. But Sage asserts the bad blood element too heavily. Its repeated appearance in the prose reminds the reader of its horrid B-rated title. Those words add a laughable aspect to serious moments of revelation.
Not afraid of revealing family secrets and personal embarrassments, Sage’s memoir is enjoyable because of its disclosure. Although exaggerated feelings make the reader weary in the beginning, the book soon assures the reader of its authenticity. The memoir takes a look into Sage’s family’s and neighbors’ heads in addition to her own. Sage does so objectively, without bias or pity, creating an honest atmosphere.
Despite the dismal beginning, Sage creates an unexpectedly uplifting conclusion to her memoir. Sage surmounts obstacles and does not allow the world’s view of her to decide her fate. She overcomes the bad blood passed on to her by her family, capping off an intriguing, though not enthralling, life story.
By Lorna Sage
281 pp., $24.95