Scoop Review of Books

Family of Fiction

Book Review
The Mirror Book
by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2021. 316 pp. $38)
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton


Grimshaw_CoverCharlotte Grimshaw’s fascinating and relentless family memoir is not only a revelation about life with her famous father C.K. Stead, it’s also a constructively challenging and confronting consideration of the contradictory realities of family life.

She fearsomely and movingly compares the differences between her family’s public face — “the lovely childhood … a house full of books” — and her private experience.

“The family story was, in some ways, mysterious,” she writes. “I believed everything she [her mother] said until I was in my thirties, when I started to get a sense of smoke and mirrors.” At first Grimshaw decided not to question it.  But when she entered the third stage of her life she realised she was not two selves. “I was one, and I would be stronger when I bought my selves together.”  As she got older, she “puzzled her way to a conclusion: all was not as it seemed.”

Grimshaw had read and admired her father’s novels and especially loved his poetry. In his novels she recognised “echoes of experience denied in real life, sublimated, turned into an acceptable form — into art.” When she began writing her own stories, her father was warm and encouraging.  He told her: “It’s material … Go and write a story about it.”  And then she realised that she was telling true stories about “a whole life lived in fiction.”

She describes how she challenged her father for using aspects of her life in his novels. Then, when she published a short story using aspects of her own family life, she was filled with guilt and sadness.

“I couldn’t reconcile the urge to translate these family difficulties into fiction with my place in the family. All my questioning, exploring what it was about the family that was so strangely rigid, so enamelled over with denial, had made me the black sheep … So much had been passed over in silence for so long.”

“If everyone is a product of their environment,” she writes, “every family is an explicable system … But what about fault?”

She explores the disconnect between her private reality and the family story. “The family line was so aggressively enforced that I seemed to live in two worlds. I noticed too much, which in itself creates difficulty.”

Her father “didn’t tolerate opposition well.” Her mother – her father’s “first and best reader” — was unable to confront him. “Instead he ruled, and the only person to challenge him was me.”

She is coolly detached as she writes about her years as a wild child, uncontrolled by her parents.  “Memories that arrived randomly later seemed to signify more when I went back to them, to form patterns that would form a meaningful story.” (Memories of anxiety and insecurity.) As a teenager in Auckland – while continuing to be a high achiever at school — she “haunted pubs and nightclubs” without parental warnings and without any sense of danger. There was “disorder, vandalism, and arrest.”  She describes a violent relationship with an older man. After it ended, she never broke the law again — “not even a speeding ticket.”

Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir is a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. Her writing is persuasive and beautiful, her revelations — which emerge as evolving “discoveries” helped by years of conversations with a psychologist — are tough and moving, starting with the “years of questioning”. She had hidden her old self for decades, and then she started telling her story. “Telling your story is existentially important.”

Given the first volume of the collected letters of Sylvia Plath, she observed that the gushing, affectionate tone in the correspondence was the opposite of the rage in the private journals. Reviewing the book, she wrote about the many selves of Sylvia and the “furious, truth-telling self in the journals.”

The final fifty pages of her memoir move bravely and resolutely to reflect on the reasons for the different versions of the truth about her family life. She writes about hypocrisy and outrage, temperament and sensitivity, tidiness and disorder, power and control, shared experiences but different memories. She wanted to tell the story of her family “at least to myself, in order to save myself. All my life Kay and Karl had been telling it, and now I didn’t think it was accurate.”  And the realities were not likely to converge.

This is a challenging book in which the writer (quoting from one of her own novels) accepts that “if telling the story causes harm, so does not telling it.” She acknowledges that “each of us might tell a different story about the same people and events.”

The story that she tells will make all its readers start to think back on their own family experiences with a new awareness —  if not acceptance.  This is a very considerable achievement. I recommend her memoir to everyone.