Book review: Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club”

Before picking up The Liars’ Club, I read Mary Karr‘s 2000 publication, Cherrybased on a recommendation from a professor of mine after she read my Master’s thesis. So, I did things a little backwards; The Liars’ Club was released in 1995 and centers around Karr’s childhood in Texas – growing up with alcoholic parents with special attention paid to her “Nervous” mother, suffering at least two instances of sexual abuse that go undiscovered until her adulthood, relying upon her older sister, Lecia, for solidarity – whereas Cherry details more with Karr’s coming-of-age years. I won’t go into that, since this is supposed to be about TLC.

(Okay, not using that acronym again! But seriously, if you haven’t read any Mary Karr yet, start with The Liars’ Club and then Cherry.)

liarsclub

I have to admit, even though I loved Cherry and, now, The Liars’ Club, it takes me for-e-ver to get into Karr’s memoirs. I don’t know if it’s the difficult subject matter or what. I just know that while reading both, I felt .. not overwhelmed, but easily tired. (I think I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read some pretty gnarly nonfiction shit over the years. It takes a lot to really surprise me anymore concerning content, which .. well, that might be a whole other can of worms for another time. But even though it’s not so surprising, it’s still emotionally trying.) And since Karr’s works have the ability to wear me down so quickly, my reading of them is always staggered and inconsistent in pace and attention. Therefore, my review will likely also be staggered and inconsistent. I’ll try to make some good points, but mostly it’ll just be a case for why you should read The Liars’ Club.

Though I seem to have focus issues when it comes to Mary Karr, her voice and her writing style is so very accessible and graspable. I read Cherry early this year, and just finished The Liars’ Club about a week ago. Reading it (even though it was technically out of order) felt like I was picking up right where I left off with Cherry.

So, okay. There may or may not be spoilers following this. I’m not sure what people consider spoilers anymore. I’m not a big fan of television. I have about five or six shows I watch religiously, and like 3/4 of them are already off the air. (Thank youuu, Netflix!) I usually don’t get into shows until they’re ending or have already ended. Therefore, I am not into the Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones/Walking Dead/Newsroom/Boardwalk Empire/etc. thing that is happening right now. Actually, most of those shows terrify me because of their gratuitous violence, but ANYWAY that’s not the issue I’m trying to highlight here! What I am trying to say (and forgive the rambles and constant interruptions, I woke up wide awake at 5am this morning for some ungodly reason) is that even though I’m not up-to-date on popular programming right now, I’m no stranger to social media and the shitstorm that accompanies even the slightest spoiler hint some poor but well-meaning fool spits out into the Internet in the hopes of some communal emotional affirmation.

You’ve been warned. In a very round-about way.

(PS – on the subject of social media, Mary Karr is on Twitter!)

As mentioned above, The Liars’ Club is centered around the narrator’s childhood years – we’re talking, like, toddler and/or pre-Kindergarten ages to eight and, later, the narrator as a young woman with an MFA. The clarity of the memories the narrator presents is just stunning, and so very visual. Every scene Karr crafted was careful and purposeful, and the dialogue she reconstructed felt true. I think that’s an important distinction here. So often you run into dialogue in fiction and nonfiction that feels contrived and flat. But Karr’s reconstruction of her childhood through voice and dialogue and scene is just staggeringly rich. I believed her: that’s what I’m trying to say. After all, that’s what the narrator – and Karr – are wanting from a reader. This is a narrator at the age of 40 (during the time of publication [1995]) who is telling us about herself at age four. We are reaching back 36 years and we are being asked to believe what four-year-old Mary-narrator is telling us. And I do believe her, hook, line, and sinker.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the content itself is that a majority of Karr’s reminiscing is pretty common, everyday, and even affectionate. And these in turn are punctuated with moments of extreme fear and violence, such as when the narrator’s mother has a “Nervous” episode, throwing out Mary and Lecia’s belongings onto the lawn because their room is messy and setting fire to the huge pile of clothes and toys in their yard as the small-town neighbors watch. Later, as Lecia and Mary lie together on a quilt on their bedroom floor, their mother stands in the doorway clutching a large knife as they watch her, quiet and motionless. Karr’s voice narrates the scene (and others like it) with such calmness that it elevates the panic of the reader. Obviously since Karr has written the memoir in 1995 we know that she survives that episode, but she pulls no punches in her recounting. Her father is implicated, as he passively refuses to leave work and confront the chaos at home. And her mother, naturally, is implicated in her alcoholism and manic depression. But it is all done so subtly that there seems to be a lack of malice in the narrator, allowing the reader to freely traverse the emotional landscape instead of being shoved toward outrage or disgust. Neither of the narrator’s parents are around when she is twice sexually abused, and yet she never comes out and blames either of them for not being there to protect her. It is what it is to the narrator, and there is more that is said by what the narrator chooses not to say.

Karr is able to play with time, to weave in and out of her childhood and even specific moments, such as when she tags along with her father to hang out with his friends, a gathering affectionately dubbed The Liars’ Club. Some readers might find this confusing, but as long as you’re paying attention, you won’t get lost. After reading, I have to think that this memoir is not about blatant accusation or atonement. Though I’ve had alcoholics and drug addicts in my extended family, thankfully my childhood was nothing like Karr’s. What I imagine this memoir to be is a portrait of life as a young girl growing up in a household with two alcoholic and volatile parents, and how everyone in the household emerges from the damage. The mother, who is at times unstable, mentally ill, depressed, and dependent on painkillers and alcohol, is humanized in the wake of the narrator’s father’s stroke. We find out why this woman has been so seemingly flippant with her affections and with other men at the same time the narrator finds out. We watch her care for a husband she divorced and later remarried, changing his bed sheets, washing his partially paralyzed body, trying to put a humidifier in his room. We discover that the father, who by the end suffers a stroke likely due to his hard lifestyle, isn’t really invincible after all. Lecia, ever the practical one, marries well and is able to foot the bill for a number of financial needs for the family, namely part of the narrator’s MFA tuition, while the narrator finds herself in a sort of suspended state of young adulthood.

We are allowed to follow the narrator as she grows and learns these things about her family, so that we’re not reading the memoir through the lens of accusation or redemption. We persevere though the narrative because, at the end, it’s all anyone can do: persevere. We’re born into it, and we grow out of it, and when we’re on the other side of it we look back at our former selves and see clearly the road map of how we’ve arrived. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club is an excellent example.

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