The Chronology of Water – an Un-book Report

As a writer, a woman and a human being I’m finding it hard to know what to say about The Chronology of Water, a memoir written by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Maybe I’ll start with this: this woman has had an incredibly messed up life, some of which was completely out of her control, some of which was in her control (but she spends most of the book telling us she’s been out of control for most of her life, regardless.)

Here’s the litany: she was sexually abused by her father, had a severely alcoholic mother, dropped out of school, did drugs, drank, slept around (no really, really slept around) and did just about everything she could to self-destruct. (In one chapter of the book she describes how she was drunk, got in her car, and hit another car with a pregnant woman driving. She never tells us what happened to the pregnant woman or how the accident was resolved.)

I don’t read many memoirs, but whenever I’ve read memoirs or auto-biographical material, I usually get the impression the author is trying to convey events as they happened and that, to the best of their ability, they are telling us the truth. Throughout Chronology of Water, the author tells us she is not telling us the truth about certain details. She’ll say one thing, then she’ll add something like but it didn’t happen that way or similar verbage to let the reader know she’s blurring the lines between what happened and what she is telling us happened. She wants us to know she is untrustworthy, which is a strange trait to want to convey in a memoir.

Also unusual is the lack of linearity in the book. Like water, the chapters ebb and flow between different parts of her life. She’ll drop something very casually in one chapter somewhat out of the blue and then tell us later the background of her casually dropped previous comment.

As a reader and a writer, I think it’s brave to talk about yourself ‘honestly’ on the one hand and focus on how the messed up events in your life have shaped you, but on the other, the book (with few exceptions) is almost entirely about that. By the time I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure I liked the “character” (?) of the writer or person who was speaking in the book.

I didn’t find these anecdotes describing a “strong” woman, even though I wanted the book to be about that. It was more like someone who has been through hell in her family, something horrific I’d never wish on anyone, to someone who had those experiences and then spent 30 more years killing herself with marathon drinking, drugging (including heroin) and the most irresponsible sexual behavior.

I could say some of the writing is lovely, and some turns of phrases are interesting and clever. That would be true. My comments aren’t about the writer’s ability to write well, which she does.

What I’m struggling with, and still struggling with, is what to make of the book. Honestly, I still have no idea what to make of it. I take that as a sign I need to think about it more, and consider the ramifications for writing about such brutal content in such a straight forward way – albeit with a writer’s voice that we’re told many times throughout the book, is unreliable.