- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Counterpoint; 1st edition (Feb. 7 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1582433852
- ISBN-13: 978-1582433851
- Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 2.6 x 21.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 476 g
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,106,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir Hardcover – Feb 7 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
It was 1975, and nine-year-old Flynn was sitting with her mother on the floor of their San Francisco apartment with a pile of money as her mother explained that the faces of these men on the coins and bills in front of us... had impact on people and events. Flynn's father had moved out a year earlier; her two sisters were at school, where she, too, should have been; instead, her mother needed to talk with her about all those faces on the money. This is how Flynn, a writing instructor at the University of Minnesota, begins her elegantly written story of how her mother had been an adventurous bohemian in the 1950s and '60s, before she became unhinged by what was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Family life became bizarrely unpredictable as her mother became attached to stranger and stranger notions. After her father moved out, mother laid out the new terms of our lives... staying inside, and cutting all our ties to other people... careful about what we ate, and what we wore. Readers begin to share Flynn's sense of dread about what her mother might do next, heightened by the disturbingly controlled calm of her narration. (Feb.)
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About the Author
Laura M. Flynn currently teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
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It is a totally absorbing read, and, aside from the riveting story, masterfully evokes the world of a child growing up in the seventies.
Highly recommended-one of the best books of this genre I have ever read.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
From the beginning of "Swallow the Ocean," we know that Laura's mother, Sally, lives in a skewed imaginative world, and her father is not mentioned until the book is well underway. Something is wrong in this family, and we want to know what.
So we take the plunge into their world, diving into the histories of Laura's parents and how they came together. We see the daily lives of three sisters, each more uncertain than the last, as the girls learn to navigate their mother's oddities. Sally eats a strict diet and spends hours interpreting her dreams, using her premonitions to determine major life decisions - and things only get stranger. Eventually, Sally's father puts forth the ultimatum: She must get help or he will leave, and threatens to take the children as well. Of course, a generation ago, the courts had a strong bias toward keeping children with their mothers, so he was left with few options.
There are many heavy themes in this book, not the least of which is how children understand and respond to parents with mental illness. There is also the fact that in most states, individuals cannot be treated for mental illness against their wills. But the heart of this book, once the girls' father is sidelined to weekend visits, is the elaborate web of games that the girls develop to handle their situation. Their mother alternately neglects, controls, and physically abuses them, and they learn to walk on eggshells in the progressively encrusted apartment from which their mother refuses to throw anything away. They learn to sneak in forbidden foods, spend hours playing with friends with whom they can rarely be quite honest, and take their dolls on adventures that last for weeks, if not months.
As the story unfolds, there is beauty and strength in the telling. However, there's a tendency toward overly flowery prose that the author is not quite prepared to handle. Particularly glaring is the almost complete lack of colons and semicolons, with run-on sentences relying on comma after comma for differentiation. It's occasionally difficult to read because of these sentence constructions. But the story is worth the trouble.
Now I understand.
Paranoid schizophrenia was the diagnosis and Flynn describes her mother’s years-long descent and her father’s attempts to gain custody of his daughters and make his Colorado in-laws understand the dire situation Flynn and her two sisters were living with.
I am impressed by her recollection of the sorts of details a child notices around her. Anyone visiting the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco would recall the fortune cookies and the wooden bridge, but it takes a special sharp memory to note the women who served the tea and “took tiny steps, toes gripping the wood of their sandals through white socks that puckered around the thong.”
Nobody was allowed into the filthy house where Flynn and her sisters lived with their mother (before her father finally gained custody). Broken windows were patched with cardboard. A poignant passage is a scene in which some neighborhood boys, naturally curious about the quirky family who never invited anyone in, tried to force their way inside while Flynn and her sisters barricaded themselves against the door in shame.
Some passages seem overlong, including her lengthy accounts of the fantasy world she and her sisters created when playing with their dolls. But they advance a sub-theme, deftly handled, that the girls are escaping into their own alternate reality at the same time their mother is doing the same.
Flynn’s prose is just plain gorgeous and her mind for metaphor impressive. Any American kid who has eaten a Hostess cupcake will identify with “The frosting on top, chocolate with a neat curlicue of white, was so firm I peeled it away whole, the way a piece of rubber peels off the toe of a tennis shoe.”