There is a truism in the publishing business that memoirs don’t sell unless the author is famous (like Michelle Obama) or has undergone truly terrible experiences.
But there are some memoirs that reach right out and capture us, even if we have never heard of the author, even if the story seems ordinary, like the sort of thing we have experienced, or could imagine experiencing. Such is the case with Katharine Smyth’s extraordinary debut, “All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf.”
Smyth sets out to understand the irascible, irreverent, effervescent spirit of her architect father, who died after a long grim fight with cancer and alcoholism. In the midst of her grief, she turns to Virginia Woolf, an author who famously grappled with the premature deaths of her mother, half sister and brother in her writing, particularly her masterpiece “To the Lighthouse.” Smyth’s fascination with Woolf enriches her own writing, providing her with the wisdom she needs to make sense of her loss. The result is a memoir enlarged and illuminated by Woolf’s insights, but mediated by Smyth’s trenchant observations and wit.
One might think this would make for a sad book, but far from being a depressing read, Smyth’s story is funny and filled with life, in part because her father, an English-born bon vivant, was passionately dedicated to filling their time together with beauty, humor and projects, from sanding the hull of their boat to laying carpets. We see him drinking gin and tonics on the deck in Rhode Island, spouting Longfellow, sunbathing in Australia, swimming off the dock, setting out on their sailboat and, most of all, loving Katharine, his beloved only child.
Smyth brings him to life with a few deft strokes:
“He taught me how to build a fire, how to tie knots, how to play tennis, darts, and snooker . . . We built snowmen; we danced, my feet on his, to the American Graffiti soundtrack; we skated on a pond in the woods, the same pond into which we released my tadpoles . . . We shared the creamy layer atop the yogurt, the jelly on pate, the wishbone when my mother pulled apart a chicken.”
And yet, Smyth’s father had a dark side. His alcoholism brutalized the family. He threw things. He raged. He had tantrums. He sobbed. He despaired. He could be cruel to Smyth’s mother, and sometimes so enmired in his own misery that he seemed “pathetic” to the teenage Smyth.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, he could not stop smoking or drinking, though his life, literally, depended on it. Gradually, his light “grew noticeably dim.” He did not seem interested in fighting his disease. He said he didn’t care if he lived or died, unmoved by the impact this would have on his only daughter, who desperately wanted him to live.
How could this be the same man who loved her so much, the man who had once woken her in the middle of the night so she could see whales spouting off the bow of their boat?
This is the quandary that torments Smyth. She tells us that her father was her favorite person. He was the one who encouraged her to write, the one who always delighted in her. No one could make her laugh as deeply, but he was also the one who tortured her the most.
Driven to understand who he really was, Smyth goes on a quest to uncover his past. What was he like before he married Smyth’s mother? Who was he before he was her father? Smyth interviews friends from the past, even old girlfriends, and we follow along, fascinated. Then, just as we think she has succeeded in capturing him, just as we think we have a handle on who he really was, she learns a secret that overturns all she thought she knew, and all we thought we knew. It turns out, she reflects, that there is a limit to how well we can know those we love. Even when we love them so passionately.
The title comes from a poem by Charles Elton that Woolf references in “To the Lighthouse.” The speaker imagines living and dying and living again, in a never-ending cycle, creating the impression “nothing gets lost, everything gets carried forward.” My father is dead, Smyth says, and yet he survives; his light burns on. Like all of the dead, he guides through his absence.
This is a transcendent book, not a simple meditation on one woman’s loss, but a reflection on all of our losses, on loss itself, on how to remember and commemorate our dead.
Charlotte Gordon’s latest book, “Romantic Outlaws: The Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley,” won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
By Katharine Smyth
Crown. 320 pp. $26.