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The Three of Us: A Family Story

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Blackburn, Julia. The Three of Us: A Family Story

After the seductively gentle title Julia Blackburn at once plunges the reader into the hard facts of her father’s drug addiction, which, combined with alcohol, ‘made him increasingly violent and so mad that he began to growl and bark like a dog.’ The tone is bleak and factual, but not devoid of humour, for Thomas Blackburn, teacher and poet, ‘was tried out on all sorts of substitute pills, including one which he proudly said was used to traquillize rhinoceroses.’ Despite his furious rages - one of which led him to attack his wife with a carving knife - Thomas maintains a relaxed and benign attitude to his daughter. Young Julia is always the piggy-in-the middle, while her mother, Rosalie, a painter and bohemian socialite, after divorcing Thomas, takes in a series of male lodgers. The story of Julia’s relationship with her mother and the lodgers takes up most of the book.

The book is multi-layered, having at least three perspectives - Julia as a child, as a young woman and in maturity as a comforter to her dying mother. In addition the story embraces extracts from Julia’s note books, diaries and text messages sent mainly to her husband whom she regularly updates on her mother’s seemingly slow demise.

The central relationship, however, is between mother and daughter, Rosalie being unkind and unfair to her surviving daughter (the complex reasons for this are adumbrated in the retrospective chapter ‘The Story of Boonie and Tuggie’). Clearly there is jealousy on the mother’s part, for having schooled her daughter in the act of sex, when the mature lodger Gerald takes a fancy to the teenager the mother loses her mind. But Rosalie is soon on the decline, no longer able to charm the young men and, sadly, stricken with cancer.

Perhaps the one weakness of the book is the author’s determination to have a happy ending. Rosalie must die happy (she refuses treatment) and in this she is supported by her daughter. The horrors of the book are in part alleviated by the growing friendship between the mature woman and her decrepit mother. Maybe I’m cynical but I felt I was being manipulated into accepting their reconciliation. We are not told of Rosalie’s conflicts, left alone as she is in hospital for most of the day. Instead our attention is diverted back to the almost forgotten Thomas - a marvellous portrait, by the way, who would dominate any novel - and his serio-comic ending with a violent cerebral haemorrhage as he attempts to climb into bed.
This apart, the memoir is everything one might wish for - scrupulous honesty, lack of self-pity, characters galore and, for those who need it, a message of hope.

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    • By nonsuch
      Blackburn, Julia. Thin Paths

      A melange of travel book and memoir, Thin Paths is an enjoyable read. The sub-title ‘Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village’ appropriately excludes reference to the seeing-eye author, whose ‘rescuing’ of a life that is being swiftly outmoded gives a melancholy tinge to these tales of persistence and occasionally derring-do. The smooth transitions between past and present are well handled: the anecdotal stories of real people, many of whom are now in their nineties form that vital link.

      Julia’s partner Herman is for the most part kept hidden, and his long visit to Amsterdam for cancer treatment that must have been traumatic is deliberately underplayed. The author is too preoccupied with studying the flora and fauna and of unlocking the peasant life that is gone and lost for ever. She has a snatching eye that seizes on fragments, some of which are caught on camera, which reveal the mutability of this isolated community. In a section entitled ‘Fragility’ she picks up a bit of a tombstone and takes it home: The stone was heavy and its rough edges bit into the palm of my hands. I found a place to prop it at the back of the water tank. Reflected in the water, the sunlight flickered on the surface of the marble. The shadow of maidenhair ferns flickered across it and shuddered in the wind.

      If you have read the author’s previous memoir of her horrendous upbringing, The Three of Us, you will understand her need to find peace and tranquility in the remoter areas of Liguria. Deadly snakes and cat-eating peasants are as nothing in comparison. Nature is predictable and observable, while the human heart remains a dark mystery.
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