I've looked at my life and I see it clearly now; it was never for me, always for you. But something is broken between us, something more than my heart.
I feel a bit out of my element here because unless it's about someone I admire or I'm actually required to, memoirs aren't exactly my cuppa. The Doubting Thomas in me will always question at the back of my mind if the author is actually reminiscing or taking some creative license. Which makes reviewing memoirs quite a challenge as any critique I may have boils down to the author's reliability as a narrator and I really don't want to take that road.
This book in particular takes a bit of readjustment because the nature of this story and its delivery makes my mind default back to reading it as if it's fiction. I guess I should find some comfort in the fact that I am still capable of being shocked. Enough to automatically process something so bewildering as fiction in order to be able to deal while reading it before addressing it as something that actually happened in retrospect.
So please bear in mind that whatever comment I may have refers solely on the story being told and in no way reflects my feelings towards the author, the veracity of her accounts or belittling the pain and suffering she has gone through as told in this book.
Sixteen, Sixty-one tells the story of how a precocious and intelligent 15-year old girl, alienated from her peers in school and at home, was seduced and manipulated with literature, poetry and philosophy to having an illicit affair with a sexagenarian family friend. Not being able to participate well in life's normalcy, Natalie is left with no option but to join Matthew's world of Uncles (people who are not restricted by society's norms) and Bunburys (lies) while dealing with her own sexual confusion. As she grows older, Natalie's world expands, and in realizing Matthew's devious ways, struggles to be free of his control and influence.
"Forget your senses, your perception, your gnosis and the plasure of stolen joys in a barren but eternal world; forget the 'unreal' plain in which we used to live, the dead poets and the lyricism of life: you are in danger in the gross, mucky, mundane world of everyone else. You have dug yourself a hole of pornography, sexual manipulation and jealousy, and you are so far short of being equipped to deal with it that you cannot even see you are in it."
As it is, I'm having a hard time reminding myself that this is not a Bernardo Bertollucci film.
Matthew is every parent's bogeyman. His machinations of perverting a young, impressionable mind are the raw materials of nightmares. There are graphic allusions to his relationship with Natalie at fifteen and beyond: mentions of bondage, threesomes and dirty talk which could easily turn even the most hardcore reader away. He is NOT an attractive 60-year old man who fell in love with the beautiful mind of the young woman who nobody wanted. This is NOT that story. When she's having sex with Matthew, she's having sex with an old guy. You do not get any comfort or escape. Do not expect a romanticization of his relationship with Natalie beyond that of predator and prey.
Matthew and Natalie's affair covered a small stretch of the story and most of the book dealt with Natalie's discovery of who she is outside the concept of her older lover and dealing with what she found. A well-trodden path in coming of age books that felt a little repetitive and aimless for the length and attention it was given. Her tireless wavering between being a lesbian or not, making the same mistakes and not learning the same lessons got a bit redundant and exhausting.
The narrative reads more in the tradition of literary fiction and lots of dead guys with philosophical and literary merit get quoted and name-dropped (especially by Matthew in his default crazed state) which alienates the plebeian reader like me, making my mind wander off to planning my next read. I'm trying hard to keep in mind that this is a memoir, but I still found the conflict and Matthew's antics in the last 20% bordering on ridiculous (because I've been led to believe through 200-something pages that Natalie IS a smart girl) and in a different shade of strange from the rest of the book.
I did enjoy the literary critiquing of Matthew's emails and letters to Natalie, complete with handwritten sidenotes, though I felt it strangely patronizing and completely unnecessary. I'm quite surprised how much I like the reality of how things ended, after some thought. A good, subtle contrast to the nonconformity of this story.
I cannot, in good faith, recommend this to anyone. I keep thinking back to The Original Sinners, an unorthodox series that I initially thought was a step beyond the vanilla line. But that's fiction.
I guess this book is about a step or two more beyond that. And this is someone's reality.
ARC provided by Harper Collins UK thru NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.