Janette Turner Hospital

  • Colour is the Suffering of Light: A Memoir by Melissa Green
    Phoenix, 341 pp, £9.95, April 1996, ISBN 1 897580 43 6

‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ Melissa Green’s mother says to her nonchalantly on the subject of having babies. ‘The doctors will be there and they’ll put you to sleep. I almost miscarried with you. The doctor wanted me to stay in bed, but I didn’t and you were born just the same.’ Melissa, on the verge of puberty, baffled by and anxious about certain bodily changes, is neither greatly enlightened nor particularly reassured by this information, but her mother, in the time-honoured patchwork mode of ellipses, imprecision and embarrassment, barrels on regardless with the lecture on birds and bees. The one thing Melissa is spared is euphemism.

‘You were so tiny when you were born,’ my mother continued, ‘they thought you were going to die. They put you in an incubator for six weeks. It was like a little glass coffin, and you were blue, and everybody thought you were going to die.’ She laughed, a raw, glittery sound out of her red mouth. ‘In the old days, they would have taken a sickly baby girl like you to a mountaintop and left you to die in the wind and the rain. Eagles would have come down and plucked out your eyes. Here,’ she said, thrusting a brown paper bag in my lap. ‘You’ll need these.’

The bag contained a box of sanitary towels and an explanatory pamphlet with diagrams, and that was the end of Melissa’s first lesson on menstruation and birth. As on so many occasions in her childhood, she learns only that any explanations given by her family are misleading and partial. They raise more questions than they answer, though the questions they raise are full of fearful interest and point down byways where more disturbing knowledge lurks.

A similar lesson is quickly learned by the reader of this memoir, which, we are told in a prologue to the Prologue, ‘is more than the story of what happened to me as a child. It is about how I was saved by language.’ This is an explanation as deceptive as any given to the young protagonist. Indeed, there are moments when the reader feels that the author comes closer to being damned by a self-indulgent infatuation with words. There is a preciousness to many passages, a quality of the ‘set-piece’ and of an over-contrived ‘poetic’ style, that can be both irritating and embarrassing. It would be nearer the truth to say that this is the story of someone born into a family riven with contradictory myths about itself and torn by competing needs and narcissisms. The child Melissa becomes the battleground for these competitive versions of past and present, and is almost destroyed by the clash. This memoir is about how she was saved by a remythologising of herself and of her family, and by the evolution of a new and less self-destructive form of narcissism. In other words, although the explanations which Green gives her readers are frequently unsatisfactory, they do tell us something. Her own exegesis of her life tends towards psychobabble; but the explanations not articulated, the anecdotes never completed, haunt and fascinate.

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