Review: Autobiography of Childhood by Sina Queyras

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Autobiography of Childhood, Sina Queyras, 193 pages, Coach House Books, www.chbooks.com, $19.95

“She is going to tell you a story. He is going to tell you a story,” begins Autobiography of Childhood. “I could tell you a story, the twelve-year-old prostitute says. I could tell you a story, the young man on the corner selling pot says. Let me tell you a story, her coiffed students say in their neat rows,” and it becomes clear that Queyras’ story of many narrators will be told with or without the willing participation of she with the coiffed students.

In fact, though the narrative is very simple—Therese Combal is dying of breast cancer and she and the five remaining members of her family each try to come to terms with the tragedies that bind them together—not one of the afflicted Combals, wants to (or can) sustain the story alone.

Instead, Autobiography is a Woolfian, Waves-inspired experiment in collective consciousness creation that functions as a last resort for a family whose history has been fractured by divorce, homelessness, schizophrenia and the years-ago death of a brother/son. Each of Therese’s four siblings and their father take one chapter and a day of narrative, leading up to Therese’s affecting description of her own death. They all describe the same day and to a varying degree, each is aware that they are about to lose an active member of their collective memory. And judging by what happened the last time there was a death in the family, they have every right to be as scared as they are.

It’s a grim read, but not joyless, and Queyras never wastes words or images getting to her point. In fact, she cut 90 percent of the novel over five drafts in as many years, and what’s left is more like a 200-page prose poem than that story promised by those first, unreliable characters. No doubt they have a simple version, but they—and Queyras—left without telling.

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