The Chronology of Water: A Memoir
by Lidia Yuknavitch
Reviewed by Megan Zabel
The Chronology of Water, by Portland author Lidia Yuknavitch, infuriated me. I was so annoyed by a couple of rambling, no-punctuation stream-of-consciousness passages that I considered throwing the book across the room. Much of it is easily termed "experimental" writing, which often translates as "gimmicky" for me, and examples in this book were no exception. More than once Yuknavitch shares her thoughts or describes an event, only to immediately follow it with the admission that she was lying; she'd just made it up as she was writing. Her memoir.
But there's something else, something very important, that you need to know about this book.
It set me on fire.
I'm not sure I've ever had such a powerful, complex reaction to a book. The Chronology of Water is astonishingly beautiful, and, as a writer, Yuknavitch is a force. Her writing hits you, hard. It rocks you. She knocked me over with passages so brilliant, so true, I had to reread them over and over until I could bear to let them go in order to move on to the next paragraph. The first chapter, where she writes about giving birth to her stillborn baby daughter, is so profoundly moving and visceral and honest, I was practically shaking after I read it. I looked up from the book wide-eyed, my voice gone mute, with nothing except the words "holy shit" scrolling through my mind on a loop. If I had to recommend one book that I've read in the last three years, it would be this one.
So what's it about? Everything. Abuse, competitive swimming, lots and lots of sex, drugs, family dysfunction, self-destruction, writing, more sex, failure, wounds, overcoming, forgiveness. We booksellers like to categorize books, but this one fits everywhere, and nowhere. At its root, the book is a showcase of a woman who has figured out how to put her essence, her core, her real story on paper. It's proof of a remarkable talent, one that bulldozes the notion that the reader should be comfortable.
Which leads me back to those parts I had trouble with. I wasn't exaggerating: my negative reactions were strong; my anger at times rivaled my awe. But what became apparent is that Yuknavitch's style is a deliberate decision, not an oversight. Her method is as vital to her story as the words she uses to tell it. It's an exhibition in honesty. She purposefully chose a publisher (Portland's Hawthorne Books) who wouldn't force her memoir into the mainstream mold. When this sunk in, my beef with the book seemed incredibly weak. Digestibility was never the goal. Real truth is ugly, and nothing this true should go down easy.
In the end, I was left not only impressed, but inspired, invigorated. I emerged from this book with an urge to live my life with more intention, and to quit screwing around and work on being a better writer. For real this time. Not to just sit at my desk and tap out neat, clever paragraphs, but purge all the dark unmentionable things, too, to dig, to write the real me, not what I'd like to imagine the real me looks like.
You should read this book. You need to, even if you don't think you're the type of person it appeals to. I'm willing to bet that at times it won't sit well with you, either. You'll grow weary from all the sex (really, mountains of sex), crave some punctuation, and your grammar siren will start screaming. But, if you're a human, and especially if you're a human that fancies him- or herself a writer, The Chronology of Water should be mandatory. It's beyond a study in memoir writing. It's a study in Lidia Yuknavitch. This is how it should be done.