An abandoned car brings the police to Styles, the famous residence of Agatha and Archibald Christie. The famous writer has gone missing after a fierce quarrel between the couple during breakfast. Archie does not seem concerned at all and he is astonishingly reluctant to cooperate with the investigators. For the detectives, his behaviour is highly suspicious and even more so when they uncover an affair he has had for quite some time and because of which he asked his wife for a divorce. Yet, all this information is not really helpful in determining the whereabouts of the grand dame of crime. This is one way the story can be told, but maybe there is also a completely different version.
“Then the phone rang, shattering my lonely vigil. When I picked it up, I nearly cried in relief to hear a familiar voice. But then the voice spoke. And in that moment, I knew that everything had changed.”
Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 is, due to broad media coverage, a well known fact. However, the mystery has never been really solved and the crime writer herself did not comment on what actually happened during the ten days of her absence. Marie Benedict, by whom I already totally adored the portrait of Hedy Lamarr in “The Only Woman in the Room”, fills this gap with a very clever story which especially enthused my due to the tone which perfectly copies the crime writer’s style.
The narration tells the events of two points in time alternatingly. The first recounts how Agatha and Archie met, their first years during WW1 and their quick marriage which is immediately followed by darker years stemming from Archie’s depressive and dark moods. The second point of time follows the events after her disappearance. The first is shown from Agatha’s point of view, the later gives more insight in Archie’s state of mind thus revealing a lot to the reader but at the same time, omitting very relevant pieces of information which keeps suspense at a high level.
Even though it is a mystery, it is also the story of a woman who wants her marriage to succeed, who is willing to put herself and her daughter second after her husband’s needs and who fights even though there is nothing to win anymore. However, she does not breakdown but emerges stronger and wiser since she used her cleverness and capacity of plotting to free herself of her marital chains.
Catherine Simpson’s memoir is not a book easy to review. First of all, it is of course non-fictional, second, it is a very personal report on a sister’s emotions and thoughts after her younger sibling committed suicide. This makes it difficult to use phrases like “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” since they simply don’t work here. It is also somehow out of question to discuss the tone of writing as while reading it, I had the impression that it was much more written for Simpson herself than necessarily for a reader. It seemed to me to be her way of coping with the situation and sorting out her thoughts and feelings.
I appreciated her openness in sharing her sometimes contradictory emotions, in not embellishing her own role in her sister’s life. She presents episodes where she was nasty as a kid or where she simply did not pay enough attention to Tricia’s needs. This surely is not easy to talk about. But this is exactly the point she is making: in their family, they never talked. The girls were taught to be silent, not to ask too many questions and best not to be seen at all. They did not have a poor childhood, they had good times and fun on the farm, too, but the family’s way of coping with emotions certainly played a role in the development of Tricia’s illness and final suicide.
The book definitely gives a good insight in living with depression and how the loved ones who are left behind after someone chose to end his or her life feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more. I don’t think there is much you can actually do to protect and help people with serious mental health issues, but you can certainly work on talking more with the people around you.
The death of her father has left Katharine pondering about her life and the people playing major roles in it. Amongst them is not only her family but also Virginia Woolf whose works deeply impressed her when she was a student at Oxford. The parallels between “To the Lighthouse” and her own life are stunning, especially when it comes to the impact that places have on the people. It is her family’s summer house in Rhode Island that first and foremost underlines this impression. Re-reading Virginia Woolf gives her the opportunity to understand her grief as well as her family relationships and to finally cope with her father’s passing.
Katharine Smyth makes it easy for the reader to follow her thoughts. Even though it is some years since I last read “To the Lighthouse”, I could effortlessly find my way back into the novel and see the thread that Smyth also saw. I found it an interesting approach for a memoir or biography and I liked it a lot.
There are two major aspects that I’d like to mention. First of all, Katharine Smyth cleverly shows how literature can help to overcome hard situations and to find solace in reading. It has been a concept since the ancient times, the classic Greek drama with its purgatory function and the possibility of a katharsis which helps you to sort out your feelings and opens the way to go on in life. Second, I also appreciated the author’s frankness. It is certainly not easy to write about the own father’s addiction and his slow deterioration, yet, the process of writing might have helped her, too, and embellishing things would have been counterproductive here.
An interesting memoir which was also beautifully written that made me think about which novel I would pick as a parallel to my own life.