The Chronology of Water: A Memoir
by Lidia Yuknavitch
Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
It didn't surprise me that as soon as I finished Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir, The Chronology of Water, I broke out in a fever. Maybe lingering late-season germs were to blame, but I'm also convinced that this bold and highly unconventional book -- hot, gritty, unrelenting in its push to dismantle the self and then, somehow, put the self back together again -- gets not just under a reader's skin but seeps all the way into her bloodstream.
A Portland author with three published works of fiction, Yuknavitch takes on, with nary a flinch, a spiral of self-destruction sparked in part by an abusive childhood and by a profound loss in her young adult years. She wisely keeps details of the father's sexual perversion toward young Lidia and her sister off the page -- we are left to measure the extent of the damage from ruined relationships, bouts of drug and alcohol binges, reckless behavior -- even as she portrays an ability to muscle through adversity, to bushwhack through the worst of trouble and confirm her own immutable resiliency and strength as a woman.
"What I really wanted was to be taken to whatever the edge of self was. To a death cusp. Maybe not literally. But maybe literally," she writes, and we believe this narrator indeed had no compunction about flirting with death, tough and brutally direct as she is throughout the book. So direct, in fact, that no sex act goes undocumented, no bodily fluid goes unspilled.
Though Yuknavitch explores the singular self with intensity and potency, she also has something -- a lot of somethings -- to say about the culture in which she is raised and comes to womanhood, a clenched fist of a challenge to all of us to question issues of gender, sexuality, parenthood and love. The book is framed with eloquent (yet never sentimental) images of motherhood, the body's tenuous capacity to grow and nurture another body. In a book that is otherwise quite loud, issues of motherhood are explored gently, quietly, the subtlety of these sections giving the book its most powerful underpinning.
Much of The Chronology of Water is set in Portland and in Eugene, where Yuknavitch not only earned her doctoral degree at the University of Oregon but also studied writing with Ken Kesey. These meanderings through unsettled early adult life are interesting enough, though most captivating is the prose directed at that which brews and festers in her interior. It's when Yuknavitch enters the water, first as a competitive swimmer in her youth and later as a woman seeking silence and solace, that she allows her body to stretch out of its usual state: a tight ball of fury. Water, and more precisely the act of swimming, is the overarching metaphor that serves as connective tissue for a series of fragmented pieces, the experimental form she employs -- a form that often keenly emulates the function of memory itself: images of the past rising up to serve us when they're needed and settling into the mind's recesses when they're not.
"I thought about starting this book with my childhood, the beginning of my life," she writes. "But that's not how I remember it. I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesn't happen in any kind of order. Events don't have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It's all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations."
Raw language and explicit sex scenes will prevent some readers from entering Yuknavitch's latest work -- though so far such content apparently hasn't deterred sales. The Chronology of Water is in its second printing even before the official pub date and is quickly climbing the best-seller list at Powell's. Which leads me to congratulate local Hawthorne Press for championing this edgy book, exposed breast on the cover and all. A courageous and saucy book is simply not possible without a courageous and saucy publisher.