It won’t surprise any regular reader of this blog to hear that I think Janice Galloway’s “This is Not About Me” superb. Despite it being published last year I have only just read it. I hoarded it like a rare treat, saved for a time when I could properly engage, believing that writing this good deserves attention. I have been pounding through umpteen books to review, and have deliciously come to a stop. Time for Janice.
There is a lack of family photographs bar the one on the front cover, so instead snapshots are created with Galloway’s customary precise prose. Rather than write with hindsight Janice the narrator speaks from her childhood, baffled by often cruel words and actions. She doesn’t qualify these things with an adult’s perspective, there is no summation, just a childhood up to the age of 12 told in scenes rich with the sounds, sights and taste of Saltcoats in the 60’s. Music, sweeties, telly, knitted clothes, chips, plants, and people conjured with descriptions as magnificently telling as “Sophie’s wrists were lavender, her eyes rimless, congealed as eggs.”
Janice managed life with a drunken father and an unhappy mother by being as quiet and as little trouble as possible. Her sister Cora was elsewhere, married and with a baby or babies of her own. After leaving her violent husband Beth Galloway moved to a cramped room above the doctor’s surgery she cleaned, taking Janice with her, and for a brief time there was calm. However, they were joined by Cora, now alone, much older than Janice, and full of unpredictability. Cora crackles off these pages, her beauty rituals and rage vivid. She terrorises Janice, her mother, and possibly the local men. She’s a kind of smoking, knitting queen, stationed in a chair, fag on the go, watching the telly, dictating to all and sundry, prone to alarming outbursts.
Janice begins school and learns how being good at tests isn’t enough, she is expected to fit in, to be cheery and make conversation. After school she sits outdoors, waiting hours for her mother to return home from work, making her own entertainment. Reading these clear slices of childhood made me long for a kindly stranger to befriend Janice, show her some affection and understanding, but none appears. It is an uneasy read. Knowing that adult Janice is one of the finest contemporary writers in the world and held in high regard is some comfort.
This is not a voyeuristic misery memoir. There are fleeting glimpses of love here, but it is awkward love, self-conscious and stiff. One of the saddest scenes has Janice saving money to buy her mother a present. She chooses with enormous care something special that she hopes will let her mother know how much she is loved. Cora ridicules the gift, and Janice, before it is given, and insists it be returned to the shop for a refund. Cora pulls her hair, bashes her lip, and Janice does as she is told and buys a pair of “safe” gloves for her mum instead. Ouch.
For the most part Janice observes, attempts to decode actions and anticipate the slight twists and turns of mood that can be the difference between a sort of peace or Cora raging at her, often violently. I was glad when she develops her own sense of anger towards the end of this volume with the onset of hormones. I wanted her to stand up to Cora, take the power away from her.
This memoir is a version of the truth, as all memory is. There are other sides to the scenes here, and as the title says this is not all about Janice. Here is Cora’s story, and Beth’s too. These three females cooped up together, struggling, each wanting something different. I would like to know more of them. As characters, for that is all they can be to me the reader, they are all three interesting. Looking again at the photo on the cover having read the book, the picture becomes perfectly symbolic of the relationships we have learnt about inside. I don’t know if there is to be a follow up, I certainly hope there is some kind of a happy ending.