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In Confessions of Joan the Tall, Joan Cusack Handler writes a memoir of growing up in a Roman Catholic home in the Bronx in the 1950s. Handler's narrative works as a coming-of-age memoir while providing a kind of nostalgia for a time when family and religious life were simpler than they are now. Handler's work is notable and stands out from the large number of Roman Catholic childhood stories (and I've read and reviewed several lately) in that hers is strictly memoir, rather than a fictionalized account and in her distinctive use of narrative voice as well as structure.
Handler writes very short chapters, sometimes a single page, each a mostly independent vignette, in the voice of her young self. I appreciate that the writing style as well as the short sections give us a sense of being inside the consciousness of Joan, the girl, rather than Joan the adult. It seems to me that there are really two types of memoirs, one that presents the perspective of the adult looking back over earlier experiences, the other that gives the impression of a kind of immediacy as the younger self experiences and narrates events in real time. Handler's memoir is of the latter type. And her writing style, her narrative voice lends a kind of immediacy to the work. Her short and nearly self contained chapters speak to the nature of memory and the young person's perception of her reality and experiences. In these ways, Handler creates a memoir that reads like an authentic experience of the world from the young person's point of view. The immediacy of the narrative--Joan, the character often speaks in the present tense--creates the sense that we, as readers, are experiencing things in real-time, as Joan does. I have to say, however, that while I appreciate and understand Handler's writing in the voice of the young Joan, there were moments when this voice struck me as not particularly authentic and believable. Joan uses syntax and expressions that just didn't seem to fit with this historical context, 1950s Bronx. For example, the repeated use of "totally" is, to my mind, reminiscent of the 1980s Valley Girl, while Joan's frequent "I think it's so cool. . ." also seems incongruent with the time, place, and ethnicity of Joan, the young girl.
Memoirs are interesting in that a well written memoir addresses something about the very nature of memory. And I think, also, that Handler's overall structure speaks to this very matter. Memory is both necessary and unreliable, full of holes. Memory represents not the factual, external truth, but the inner truth of one's own experiences. Memory retains those episodes that are infused with personal importance while letting fall by the wayside what the nonconscious deems unimportant. And Handler's short, seemingly disconnected chapters reflects all of this. She creates a window into the consciousness of her speaker, the girl Joan, that allows us to witness what her memory retains. We can only guess at those experiences that have been left out. This may be the distinction between memoir and autobiography. And this is, for me, what makes memoir, as a genre, so fascinating. We may or may not be given the factual truth, but we are allowed to observe the personal truth of our speaker as she grows up.
In Confessions of Joan the Tall, Handler also creates a nostalgia for a time when religious devotion and family life were somehow simpler, more wholesome, and closely linked. Although Joan struggles with attaining some of the standards that she perceives to be required by Catholicism, she is clear on her religious affiliation and is even aware of the ways that this structures her relationships and her life. This strikes me as much simpler than the lives of contemporary young people who often lack the structure afforded by a religious upbringing. Catholicism may not be perfect and may even have some adverse affects on Joan, yet the longing for a time when moral understanding and religious devotion were more definite is conveyed here. Closely connected to Joan's experience of the church is her family life and her devotion to family. Her relationship to her father is presented with particular warmth. Again, I sense a kind of longing for a time, not really that long ago, when in tact nuclear families were more the norm than they are now.
Confessions of Joan the Tall also works as a coming of age story. Joan struggles with nearly-universal (or at least common to middle class young people in the Western world) anxieties of fitting in with peers, being tormented (and loved) by older siblings, success in school, and relationships with the opposite sex. Her insecurity about her physical appearance is particularly poignant and strikes me as authentic. As Joan begins the painful and wonderful transition from childhood to adulthood in this book, readers can find much to relate to, even if their upbringings were different from Joan's in terms of religion, ethnicity, and even time period.
I'd like to add that Handler has a particularly lovely blog. Some of her posts overlap with the book; some do not. It's absolutely worth exploring.
This review originally posted on my book review blog, Speaking of Books. Please visit me there!
NOTE: A review copy was provided by the author and the publisher. No other compensation was received.