One of the most decorated poets alive, Natasha Trethewey confronts her traumatic past in this remarkable book

By David Canfield
July 28, 2020 at 02:15 PM EDT
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Nancy Crampton; Ecco

An act of murder tends to be a grisly affair in books, an engine for pulpy true-crime mysteries or juicy plot twists. It might seem an odd fit, then, for a reflective, lyrical memoir (the literary genre known for introspection, wreckage, and resilience). To encounter a horrific killing in this space is to see it sapped of its entertainment value, laid bare for both its author and its readers to examine, plainly and deeply.

How unusual — and how powerful it is in Natasha Trethewey’s telling. At 19 years old, she learned of her mother’s brutal death at the hands of her former stepfather; it took more than 30 years for her to confront the trauma, a rigorous personal investigation that takes the shape of her debut memoir, Memorial Drive. The book is difficult, undaunted by its subject matter. Scenes of domestic violence are depicted with agonizing clarity; the narrator’s struggle to come to terms isn’t kept out of view, but documented on the page, inviting us into the pain of her process. Trethewey does not hold your hand. But she does guide you, confidently, into states of grace and revelation and beauty.

A former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Trethewey revisits her Deep South childhood, offering profound meditations on her mixed-race identity, allowing bits of family lore and American history’s bloody landscape to skirt her narrative’s edges. Her love of language proves crucial: Metaphor and allegory, modes of understanding instilled by her father, become tools for finding meaning in her mother’s tragedy — a meta-argument for the value of telling one’s own story in memoir. At the heart of Memorial Drive, though, is her mother, ghostly and incomplete, but mercurial, vibrant, and curious in recollections — a complex hero, the core to every great story. In this one, it’s the root of its sadness, too: There was so much more to know. A-

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