I am very intrigued by this new book from Siri Hustvedt. I have read some of her early novels such as ‘The Blindfold’, ‘The Enchantment of Lily Dahl’, and ‘What I loved’ as well as collections of essays. This was billed as a look back at her early work, part memoire and part early fiction in which you can see the inspiration for her first novels.
What we are led into believing is that we are seeing the young Siri Hustvedt, newly arrived as a graduate in New York, struggling with grad college, a new city and finding friends. She is starting to write, and the discovery of one of her notebooks from those early years is supposed to open up memories of that time and the early plots to her stories. However, I think it is important to remember that what you are reading isn’t all a real-life story. It feels as if it is, but here in the book Hustvedt’s husband is called Walter and her daughter Freya. In real life her husband is the writer Paul Auster and her daughter the singer Sophie Auster.
Our real and fictional heroines do share an upbringing in Minnesota, but our fictional heroine has a doctor for a father, while Hustvedt’s father was a professor of Norwegian. But that is the skill of this book, there is enough truth for you to believe everything that you are reading is biography, a mingled commentary from the present using a notebook of ideas, observations and writings from the past.
My advice is look for clues as you go along. Some of the letters are signed off SH. Obviously that should be Siri Hustvedt, but also notice that there are some acronyms such as OSH (Our Standard Hero) and in one of her fledgling novels the teenagers are huge fans of Sherlock Holmes. Treat it like a detective novel.
My advice is to listen to some of Hustvedt’s advice. “If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted.” Her discovery of the long-lost notebook is telling, “I greeted it as if it were a beloved relative I had given up for dead: first the gasp of recognition, then the embrace. Not until hours later did the image of myself clasping a notebook to my breast take on the ridiculous appearance it surely deserves. And yet, the little book of two hundred pages has been invaluable for the simple reason that it has brought back, to one degree or another, what I couldn’t remember or had misremembered in a voice that is at once mine and not quite mine anymore.”
The wonderful thing about this novel are the huge number of stories that are running alongside each other. We have the author in the present time, visiting her forgetful ninety-four-year-old mother, remembering her childhood and her sister. Alongside, are her early attempts at fiction, teenagers drawn to detective stories with mysteries of their own to solve, and then as the young woman begins her scholarly life alone in New York, we listen with rising suspicion to events unfolding on the other side of her paper thin walls, where her neighbour seems both mad and possessed by the ghosts of her past and her lost daughter. All of these threads are irresistible and beautifully written, allowing us to weave back and forth through time.
A brilliant book which brings to mind one of Hustvedt’s own quotes, “Every painting is always two paintings: the one you see and the one you remember.”
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Sceptre, RRP $34.00