To Throw Away Unopened
Viv Albertine’s first memoir, 2014’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was a critically acclaimed award winner. Her second is a more intimate deconstruction of the family forces that shaped her, firstly as an influential punk pioneer and now as an angry sixtysomething single mother and reluctant dater.
The spine of the story is the death of her adored mother, Kathleen, at 95 on the night of Albertine’s first book launch, and its repercussions. Again Albertine’s unflinching honesty/exhibitionism and charm is on full display. She’s a gorgeous writer and an elegant thinker, and sprinkled throughout are quotes and telling anecdotes that give context to her exploring. Sometimes, though, this makes for a discursive, fractured story. One key event, a punch-up between Albertine and her sister Pascale literally on their mother’s deathbed, which sends them both to emergency, is sliced so thinly and spread so widely that its emotional impact is diminished.
In an attempt to unpick the ferocity of the fight and understand the family dynamics behind her relationship with her sister, Albertine reads both her late parents’ diaries. Her parents divorced when she was young and she’d been estranged from her late father, Lucien, for much of his life but hadn’t read his papers; Kathleen’s she found in an old Aer Lingus bag, with “To Throw Away Unopened” written on the front in Tippex. Albertine quotes from both diaries – but which of her parents is lying? Or are they both telling the truth?
There are depths to her parents that Albertine hadn’t faced before. The writing on Kathleen’s bag provides a clue: she was well and active for most of her later life and shredded other documents before her death. Why keep her diaries and instruct Albertine, her rebellious, non-conformist child, not to read them? How much of everyone is a constructed facade designed to leave emotional weight on someone else’s shoulders?
Albertine the author is an insecure woman who worries about hair regrowth between waxes and puts up with dud boyfriends – is this really the same person who shocked the world with The Slits? It’s impossible to know how much of this memoirist persona is itself an artful construction, but she’s aware that we each contain multitudes. To Throw Away Unopened is an engrossing reminder that no one is solely the external image they present to the world. LS
Faber, 304pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Viv Albertine, To Throw Away Unopened". Subscribe here.