Reviewed by Julie C. Graham
In Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, Abigail Thomas creates a vivid, non-linear memoir. Thompson writes about her life in three parts, each segment circling around the relationship she had with her now deceased second husband.
In part one, called Before, we learn about Thomas’ life as a young woman, her first marriage, her naivety, her vanity, and, in a certain way, her misinformation about the world. In part two, she writes about her father’s death and her second husband’s death, titling this section Mortality. In part three, called Here and Now, Thomas comes to terms with her life as it is now, wanting to heal broken relationships with her children and learning to accept her life for all that it was and is.
If this were written in a linear, straightforward way, it would be a beautiful, nostalgic memoir. But Thomas blindfolds her readers and twirls them, so that when the eye covering is finally lifted, we are at once in the present and the past. At one moment we find ourselves in Thomas’ first marriage, eating dinner on a turned over door, the next we are with her sister listening to a conversation about writing the very book we are reading, and the in next paragraph we have met the eventual third husband and find him to be a very good man.
This time-jumping is disorienting for about 47 seconds, as is her constant change of perspective, (first, second and third person narratives), but Thomas’ mastery of the language creates in her readers an almost instant trust; she knows what she’s doing and if we just go along with her, she will lead us, unblindfolded but still dizzy, to understand the ironies and complexities of her life. Although we are taken backwards and forwards and are expected to hold on tight through the ride of Thomas’ experiences, we want very much to be there as we grow more and more attached to Thomas, her husbands, her sister and her children.
Thomas uses vignettes as a way of drawing the reader in. Short simple paragraphs and monosyllabic words create a rhythm that is easy to digest. In the chapter “Coming Home Tomorrow,” there is a businesslike air about her vocabulary, and as we get deeper into the story and understand the depth of her love for her second husband, we feel the constraint of the words, as she pushes away the reality that hurts. In fact, in this scene from “Coming Home Tomorrow” there are only 15 words that are two syllables, and three of those words are “didn’t”:
“She didn’t then crawl into bed next to him under the tangle of wires and lines, holed up to bags of blood and water, she didn’t crawl into bed next to him and feel the length of her body long the length of his, although she thought about it, how she could, if she were careful, put her arm around him and her face against his cheek, how she might say, Don’t you know if I were to run away it would only be with you, which she knew would please him, whether he believed it or not; she saw herself doing these things but she didn’t do them.”
What is also striking in these short chapters is that many, if not all, could stand alone as short prose poems. Thomas’ gifts are apparent in each quick paragraph.
Nothing Under the Hood
She wasn’t like a car. You couldn’t open her hood and tinker around. Besides, there wouldn’t have been anything under her hood. Just empty space. She was afraid that there was no herself, that somehow she had gotten into this body, but she was still too small for it, tiny. She was fooling people who thought she was real, and here. Her husband used to say, “But we are all nothing. None of us is anything at all.” But she didn’t know what he meant by that.
To Keep Him Company
The night my father fell and couldn’t get up and my mother couldn’t get him up not being strong enough and it was four in the morning, they didn’t want to disturb anyone at that hour by telephoning for help. So she lay down beside him on the floor and stayed with him until morning.
Reading short vignettes felt much like the way memory really operates. A short remembrance here, a longer remembrance there. The way one’s mind works, constantly going over things from different perspectives. Thompson sits at a tipping point in her life, the very middle of it in fact, where she might go back and forth, back and forth, tipping into various days and years and decades of her life.
This woven story that knits different time periods with different narrative perspectives is fascinating and flawless. Safekeeping is a benchmark for non-linear memoir, and one that may remain on your bookshelf as a keepsake of graceful and intelligent writing.
Julie C. Graham is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She lives near Santa Monica, California. Check out her essay on “Trailblazing Women Explorers”, a discussion of the memoirs of solo women adventurers, now available in two parts at the online arts and literature magazine Storyacious.