marginalia || Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith

I was getting restless after The Postmistress, and so I just plucked Name All the Animals by Alison Smith from my shelf at random. This memoir has been on my TBR LandMass for about three years, ever since I bought it on a whim while I was hanging out at the bookstore one slow afternoon (I probably felt like I had to justify the space I took up there). And, well, it took me this long to read it, and thank goodness it was worth the wait–then again, I hadn’t waited, as much as I procrastinated.

In some editions, the book’s subtitle is A Memoir of the Child Left Behind–and that’s what Alison Smith was. When she was fifteen, the brother she was so close to their mother named them a unit (Alroy) died in an accident, and her family tried to cope–with distractions, with religion, with hanging on to her. As Alison’s father kept repeating to her, “You’re all I have left, baby.”

Dealing with the death of her brother, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of her parents and how everyone now tiptoed around her, adolescence, for Alison, was still a time for self-discovery. In the three years we are with her in this book, we see the effects of the accident and the consequences of her grief. We also see her coming to grips with her sexuality, falling in love for the first time, and just trying to deal, you know? As she matter-of-factly states,

I could not be anything other than the-girl-whose-brother-died.

Man. It’s a beautiful memoir. Several times, I wanted to reach in and hug Alison. Very very good read.

[And now, for pure Sasha’s Reading Record pleasure, the entry in my little red Moley (again, minimal spoilers, since it’s mostly a conversation with myself–but it gets personal somewhere in there, haha):]

* * *

# 52 [of 2010] • NAME ALL THE ANIMALS

→ a memoir by ALISON SMITH

Shaping up to be a very good memoir. In the aftermath of her brother’s death, her parents trying to cope. And she tries too. It’s all so heartfelt and moving and earnest. The young Alison Smith is such a plucky heroine. Moments of pure ha-ha like this one:

One afternoon Mother showed up outside my bedroom door, pulled the book out of my hand, led me down the stairs, and bundled me into the car. She took me to the emergency room and told the sallow-faced nurse who asked for a list of my most troubling symptoms. “She reads too much. You’ve got to stop the reading.” A doctor tried to explain to her, as he walked us toward the exit, that there was no known cure for reading.

♦ Also, the gateway to her dormant sexuality (I make her sound like a sudden nympho, haha) creaking open because of books. That’s just awesome. I mean, she’s so sheltered, even though she doesn’t make a big deal out of it–after all, she rarely broke off from this context, why would she have a point of comparison?

Anyway. There’s such a tenderness in how she comes to her own, how she realizes she’s fallen in love with a girl, how she falls in love with a girl. This made me smile, because I know it was probably the truest thing in Al’s head then, and it’s just so honest and plainly said:

For the first time since Roy left I wanted something.

She gets careless and reckless sometimes, but ah, young love. I wonder if I was as stupid then, subconsciously trying to get caught with P.? Probably, hahaha. But not on a nun’s bed, for crying out loud!

♦ I am starting to notice how distant Alison as a narrator could be. In some parts, she’s comfortable as a chronicler. — Hm, okay, okay, she tries to explain later on, but I can’t shake this off now. Bah.

Then again, sometimes the detachment just works. Case in point: ever since her brother died, Alison hasn’t been eating well, since she keeps saving half of her food for Roy. Eventually, she just stops eating. There’s no body image involved. Just the grief asserting itself. Awesome. And Alison just weaves this into the narrative. Matter-of-factly. I like that.

♦ How Alison tries to take back her “normal” life–or, well integrate this whole “dealing-with-it” into the life that she knew now:

Sometimes it occurred to me that my biggest problem might be loneliness. But I had stepped so far into the life of a dead boy that the path back to the living world seemed impassable.

♦ Her parents. Odd. The religion. They behave in a very monstrous way sometimes, especially her mother playing Kremlin (pretending nothing bad had happened, saying “You did not say that” whenever she doesn’t like what had been said–sometimes ridiculous, most times irritating). Overprotective. Obviously detrimental to Alison moving on–for one, they never address her grief. And Catholicism is creepy. Never mind that I am a Catholic. There’s a complexity to the parents though. Alison never judges them. Also, see:

Even before Roy died, my mother was a mystery. Inside her–tucked under the smile and the crispness, the rowdy zest for life–there lurked a fugitive sadness.

♦ This is so well-crafted, for three years of memories.

Grief can blind you; it pulls loose the seam of memory. It weakens your senses.

What’s struck me about this memoir is that it’s so richly remembered. A detachment? It works at some points. Such careful plotting, the revelations coming when you need it–I came to the realization that, unlike autobiographies, most memoirs (to be good) ought not be linear. This one is as non-linear as they come, so it reads like a novel. But. Wah. This is just so intricate and complex and Smith knows how to wield that narrative focus of hers, and there’s such a non-judgmental lens through which we see all this unfold.

Well. Good book. Very very good book. (And I love that author interview.) Ah, sibling grief–considering this is probably the first memoir that dealt with this, good job, Alroy. Good job. Many hugs to you.


6 thoughts on “marginalia || Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith

  1. Always looking for good memoirs. Love how you review the books you read, love your taste in books! Definitely waiting for more (:

    1. Thanks you, Via. I don’t read enough memoirs, but I think my pickiness makes for good reading when I get around to them. :) But that’s just my conceit talking, haha.


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