There are a number of refrains that recur across The Mirror Book, Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir about growing up within her literary family, subjected always to its “fictions”. Some are the kind of phrases we use or hear so frequently that they lose meaning (“lovely childhood, house full of books”), others are snippets of conversation that imply more or mean something different each time they are reconsidered (“where is the girl who …”) or that gradually become emblematic of bigger patterns or themes. The most important refrain, though, is the one central to the book’s project: “Telling your story is existentially important.”
The phrase is first spoken by a psychologist Grimshaw consults after “a personal crisis” – the rupture of her marriage and the loneliness and isolation that it exposes. These leave Grimshaw questioning herself and re-examining her past, attempting to understand the forces that shaped her.
Grimshaw is the daughter of a celebrated New Zealand novelist and poet, the “cultural monument” C. K. Stead, and the upbringing she recollects is bohemian and bucolic – full of jokes and songs, visiting writers and dreamy wandering. But alongside this were subtle but devastating “controlling force[s]”, all the more powerful for being unacknowledged – reactive anger and rigid expectations, power plays, bouts of distracted permissiveness liable to slip into neglect. It is these Grimshaw is reckoning with, as well as her sense of being a “mind not met” – unseen and not understood within her family, dismissed and cast into doubt.
Grimshaw describes this as a suppression of the self, in order that it might better fit to someone else’s predetermined image and stay in accord with their expectations and interpretations. It is a kind of gaslighting or chronic invalidation – the constant and casual undermining of a person’s way of being in the world and, by extension, their ability to trust or possess their own self. Gaslighting is a complex process and it poses a difficult formal challenge for a writer: because it is so elusive, by definition slippery and subtle and reliant on doubt, it can be very difficult to pin down, let alone shape into narrative.
Gaslighting works by accrual – it is built of small and fleeting incidents, usually deliberately ambiguous. It depends upon deniability: each incident must look individually unimportant. Grimshaw relates one exchange, for example, that centres on a prematurely opened jar of jam; others involve an eye-roll or throwaway comment. It is difficult to capture the true significance of these incidents without belabouring them, all the more so because the kind of thinking required to reckon with them also resists narrative convention – it is non-linear, asynchronous, full of revisitations and often diffuse in focus. The Mirror Book can be frustrating and disorienting because of this at times, but this is also why it is so important for these stories to be told, heard and believed.
One way Grimshaw deals with the slipperiness of her material is to turn to literature to trace a lineage or context for her experiences and ideas. There are extracts from her own and her father’s work, which draw from their shared lives and illuminate some of the intentions and emotions underpinning past events. “Fiction”, she writes, is sometimes “more revealing” because it “arranges the story exactly as the author wants it told”. Included too are Karl Ove Knausgård, Elena Ferrante and Sylvia Plath, writers who all play with notions of self, authorship and the intimate dynamics of power, especially “the life-long, destructive effect” of love that is unreliable, conditional or absent.
Literature is also important because it is the act of storytelling that interests Grimshaw most here: the role it plays in our understanding of the self, the force and impact of stories on any life. The Mirror Book is not about any objective truth or correcting a record, even though it was written in the same year as the second volume of C. K. Stead’s own memoir, which covers the same period, was published. Rather, it argues for a multiplicity of stories and truths to be allowed to coexist, for individual narratives to accompany and complicate each other, rather than to compete for primacy or demand consensus.
There is a great deal of love present in its pages – beautiful depictions of both parents at their best, of their care and of shared moments of joy – and Grimshaw is generous in her consideration of her parents’ very human failings and the wounds that they too carry. At times, though, there’s a self-consciousness to this that feels performative, like a pre-emptive defence against anticipated rebuttal. Disconcerting too is the way Grimshaw makes symbolic use of a transgender family member’s narrative, which is characterised as a “disappearance” and a reflected surface rather than something “existentially important”. That this device works to give a neat and organising symmetry to the book’s final pages makes it feel like a co-opting of someone else’s narrative, which is precisely what Grimshaw is arguing against across the book itself.
The Mirror Book is full of shifts and the occasional jolting realignment, but it has a hard-nosed curiosity and a determination towards honesty that are compelling and poignant. It is a fascinating exploration of the complexity of the stories we tell about ourselves and each other – everything that shapes them and what they might shape in return.
RHNZ Vintage, 316pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "The Mirror Book, Charlotte Grimshaw".
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