In this trio of very short but moving memoirs, the American author Ellis Avery revisits three key moments in her life. Each involves an uncomfortably close encounter with mortality, and a form of grieving, whether that’s for a person she once knew and loved, or a part of her life that is over. The quirky title is taken from the tooth, mounted as a pendant, that Avery finds among her late mother’s jewellery in the first part of this memoir-sequence. It becomes a symbol of the strange remnants that we leave behind us, a mere fragment of the life its unknown owner once lived. The two later memoirs show us Avery dealing with her own mortality, as she confronts a cancer diagnosis. When I first read the three bite-sized books, almost exactly a year ago on 20 February 2019, I found them engaging, pragmatic and compassionate explorations of the way we deal with grief. Little did I realise at the time that Avery had died only five days before I read them. Having read them again, knowing that, her courage and honesty – coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality – is all the more striking.
Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother used to tell her daughters that it was their duty to cover her when she died. By shrouding her body in a pagne, the colourful wrapper worn by both women and men, they could preserve decency and allow her soul to safely move on to the next stage of its journey. But Mukasonga was living far away in France when her mother was horrifically murdered, alongside her sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Unable to fulfil her mother’s wish, Mukasonga instead pays tribute to her with this extraordinary memoir. It is a celebration of one remarkable woman, but also of all the women whom Mukasonga knew as a girl: the energetic, creative, passionate, devout neighbours who helped an exiled community to maintain its dignity in the face of racial hatred, and who fought to give their children as normal a life as possible in a world where nothing was normal any more. Blessed with a lyrical and eminently readable translation by Jordan Stump, this little slice of vanished Rwandan life might just end up being one of my books of the year.
The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt
‘I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality. There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.
Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…