Thinking Through The Flesh

A review of Lidia Yuknavitch's new memoir, The Chronology of Water.

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A shot of some people reaching towards the camera, underwater
Credit: photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I had high hopes for Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, only recently released in the UK, mostly because it begins with this:

The day my daughter was still-born, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.

The force of this paragraph continues throughout the memoir, along with its painful beauty. Yuknavitch carries you on a dizzying tour through a childhood under an abusive father and an alcoholic, suicidal mother, a college swimming career punctuated by addiction and self-destruction, a writing career that sets her on the path towards healing. Her style is overtly experimental, with the narrative eddying around her most significant memories. It is, at times, confusing, with events alluded to but never properly explained, people named that we haven’t yet met. It will not be to everyone’s taste; the prose is at its best only when you surrender to it. The narrative is disparate and circular, rather like memory itself – something that seems deliberate. 

The Chronology of Wateris aware of itself; it is a coherent narrative imposed over events that don’t have one. Yuknavitch often draws attention to her writing as an act of embellishment, blurring the line between truth and invention. She writes of her students, asking if the things in her short stories ‘really happened’ to her. After a short deliberation, there is no answer; “when we bring language to the body, isn’t it always already an act of fiction?” And yet, the body is the “only witness” we can call to the stand, the truth of the body the only truth Yuknavitch is able to give us. 

Paradoxically, Yuknavitch’s memoir always feels honest, sometimes uncomfortably so. Yuknavitch seems so truthful because she allows her “only witness” to speak for her. There can be no unfounded half-truths because the evidence of Yuknavitch’s life is in her body, in her sweat, tears, orgasms, births, injuries, and addictions. Her body stands as a metaphor, for the act of creation and of writing, for her sexual and intellectual self, and as a physical manifestation of her identity as a swimmer, a mother, a woman, an addict. It is only when she moves away from this firm root in the bodily truth of her story that Yuknavitch’s writing becomes weak. The reader doesn’t need her connection with art and writing spelled out to them, as her body, and by extension her body of work, are a testament to that very fact. Yuknavitch is strongest when she thinks and writes through her body. Without the sense of physicality that runs through her work, her writing is airy and anchorless, verging on pretentious. The passage where she instructs the woman reader to collect rocks, although much shared in certain corners of Twitter, seems to revel in its own mysticism. It comes too early in the work for anyone to be convinced of Yuknavitch’s authority on the female experience. When she moves on to her own experience collecting rocks to cope with the grief of the still-birth of her first child, the prose becomes, once again, something concrete and moving.

And yet, even the insubstantial, not-quite-convincing passages of The Chronology of Water wrap you up and carry you with them. I read the whole thing in one frenzied sitting, and couldn’t stop myself from returning to it the next day, re-reading whole chapters. There are no attempts at politeness, no allowances made for the squeamish. Yuknavitch tells us, this is what it is to live as I have done. Overwhelmingly, The Chronology of Water is about healing, messily and humanly, through art, through literature, through connection. However far away your life feels from Yuknavitch’s, reading her work feels like being truly seen.

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