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Leslie Jamison needs your affirmation. She needs to hear that she’s a good enough mother, lover, writer; for her friends and agent to tell her that she has done well; for the men she’s dating to find even her text-messages sources of originality and inspiration. In Splinters, her third memoir – this one about life post-divorce, in the first years of motherhood – she offers a catalogue of the accolades she has received. In particular, one man named only as “C”. He tells Jamison that she’s a “miraculous creature”; more, “the future of the species”. His feedback on The Recovering, Jamison’s 2018 memoir of alcoholism and addiction, is: “You’re the truth.”
What does it mean to tell a memoirist they’re the truth? Isn’t a function of memoir its ability to draw attention to the slippery subjectivity of any given “truth”? I suppose that “truth” could stand in for authenticity, meaning: you’ve peeled back more of the layers of self-deception than most of us manage when writing about ourselves. The Recovering, ambitious and ranging, achieved just that. Still, C’s remark sounds like just the kind of thing you might say to a person with whom you were falling in love.
Splinters is split into three sections. The first covers the birth of Jamison and C’s daughter, alongside the disintegration of their marriage – after which C’s high praise mutates into vicious cruelty: “Eat something, you anorexic b---h.” The second two explore Jamison’s experience of single-parenthood, culminating in the arrival of the pandemic. Each section is composed of short, often discontinuous paragraphs that allow Jamison to ruminate on all kinds of subjects, from the lessons she teaches her students on Columbia University’s MFA programme, to analyses of various artworks she discovers while taking her daughter on long trips around the museums of New York – a splintered style to replicate the splintered form her life assumes once she has left behind “the false paradise of narrative” her marriage had offered.
“Get specific,” Jamison tells her students, so often that she eventually has the maxim iced on a cake for them to better take it in. Yet in Splinters, each thought is so gilded with specific detail that her sentences plummet under the weight of the metal. “When our steam heaters rattled, it sounded like tiny elves protesting their imprisonment with giant hammers,” she writes – displaying, too, the childlike quality that can creep into her style. When she goes on a date, near the close of the book, Jamison describes how the rock on which she sits with this new man “dug into me like a tricky follow-up question, like the subtext of his company”. I’m the truth! I’m the truth! every detail wants to exclaim.
Splinters is most successful when the writing asks what it means to bring up a child with someone you no longer love, whom you no longer even see. Twice a week, Jaminson’s daughter is passed baton-like from one parent to the other. Seeing her ex-husband’s love imprinted on the girl’s character reminds Jamison of “those games where two people take turns drawing parts of a fantastical creature”. A child of divorce becomes an exquisite corpse, shaped in turn by each parent, “everything I loved in him – his loyalty, his goofiness, his imagination, his empathy, his capacity for delight – were gifts he gave to our daughter.”
But what Jamison most wants to do in Splinters is alchemise banality into profundity. In Simple Passion, another book that deals with infatuation and the temporariness of love-affairs, the Nobel Prize-winner Annie Ernaux explains that one reason she writes about her own life is to find out “whether other people have done or felt the same things”, whether they have desired another with the kind of furious need she felt for the man she called “A”. If they haven’t, Ernaux goes on, then her writing might teach them “to consider experiencing such things as normal”. It would have made Splinters a better book had Jamison aimed for normality: the miraculous normality of falling in love and that love coming to an end, the miraculous normality of raising a child and seeing who they become.
Splinters is published by Granta at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books