Searingly honest and often uncomfortably intimate, this collection of non-fiction stories or “essays”, are elevated not only by the assured nature of Leslie Jamison’s writing, but also by how emotionally invested she becomes with her subjects.
In non-fiction, the trend is to be “once removed” from what you’re writing about, but not so here. Jamison is fully immersed in the telling. She’s the shadow of the photographer in every photo, her own personality, longings, obsessions and addictions seeping through, often with incredible results.
Though not every piece was as compelling as my favourites (52 Blue, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again, Daughter of a Ghost, Museum of Broken Hearts), most – if not all – were blessed with Jamison’s rawness, her propensity for truth-telling, and her unflinching looks in the mirror. If her subjects are lonely or damaged or fraught with unseen hurts, well then, so is she. She’ll unwrap herself as surely as she unwraps them. This serves her better in stories where she can find a way in – in some, she still seems on the outside, trying to find a crack in the window.
In the best tales – mentioned above – there is a ribbon of understanding. Jamison’s empathy and desperate need to connect are beacons throughout the book – evident in one story about children who remember past lives. Where most journalists were dismissive of the claims, Jamison sought to cast aside her own belief system, opinions, or any other attitude that might reveal she was biased or had pre-conceived ideas – to do so, she felt, would be foolish and quick to judge:
It was more that I felt emotionally, spiritually and intellectually allergic to a certain disdainful tone that implied it knew better, that it understood what was possible and what wasn’t. It seemed arrogant to assume I understood much about consciousness itself – what it was, where it came from, or where it went once we were done with it.
Chased by her own demons – alcoholism, abandonment, guilt – Jamison tackles her subjects gently, peeling aside their armours and getting to the bloody truths with an unsparing eye and the brutality, the beauty, of language. Even as she shines the flashlight through the darkness, she seems to be saying, I can see you. You’re not alone. I know your story. I want to know your story.
Come here, I will tell of it.
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!