the observer Sat 20 September 2008
On the radio recently, Janice Galloway explained that writing her memoir, This is Not About Me, has only made her realise how fond she was of her family. After all these years, she suddenly sees that she and her mother and sister were always closer than she thought. I suppose we will have to take her word for this - though writers, I need hardly tell you, are frighteningly ruthless, and are often to be found performing this kind of guilty cover-up once their literary acts of matricide or patricide are tucked between hard covers. Still, her wry laughter over the airwaves sounded pretty tinny to me. What her book oozes most is not love, but deadly fury. In the airless confines of their rented homes - at one point, the family inhabits a room whose floor space is roughly the size of a good tablecloth - these tightly knotted females resemble nothing so much as three silver balls in a wooden bagatelle: shiny and hurtlingly determined, they hit its too-flimsy walls, not to mention one another, with a force that is endlessly surprising.
Galloway, who was born in 1956, grew up in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, with her mother, Elizabeth, and her older sister, Cora (not their real names; the author has changed all save for her own). When the book opens, her father is still on the scene, but Cora, already grown up, is married with a child and living in Glasgow. Other relatives are nearby - notably Galloway's granny, a witchy blind woman who keeps a glass eye in a matchbox - but they are not loving in the usual ways; it is as if the extended family is in a permanent state of competition, and all signs of human frailty must be dextrously hidden from their beady eyes.
As for Galloway's mother, her maternal warmth has apparently been cauterised by the late and unwanted arrival of Janice, with her Celtic skin 'tearable as tissue'. Having told herself that the signs of pregnancy were the onset of her menopause - or, perhaps, a hint that she must eat fewer sweeties - years later she is still voicing her horror at her lot: '"If I'd kent," she'd say, her eyes narrowing. "If I'd just bloody known."'
Naturally, sweeties play as big a part here as they do in any Scots childhood. Galloway's mother and sister both have false teeth and, in photographs, Janice reveals mostly black stumps to the world. In times of trouble, the family motto is: have a toffee (or a Black Jack, a liquorice pipe, or a piece of cough candy); and there is always plenty of trouble to be had. 'Things can always get worse,' says Beth Galloway. 'We're not dead yet.'
She's right. She leaves her husband, a drunk, and she and Janice move to an attic above a doctor's surgery, where she is to work as a cleaner. Then Cora turns up, no kid, no husband, and no explanations, and she squeezes in, too. What follows is an ugly dance: Beth is jealous of Cora, and Cora is jealous of Janice, and Janice is terrified of both. Cora is eye-popping: lazy, vain, restless; a man lover and a man hater; a champion knitter. But she's also violent. Her attacks on her little sister - cracking her lip, setting fire to her hair - are impulsive and yet strangely calculating. She gets away with it because no one wants her to leave.
Galloway, a novelist by day, has not filled her memoir with the knowing reflections of the adult; rather, she has crept, on her hands and knees, right into the world of her childhood self (the book ends as she turns 12). Her narrative, then, is elliptical, yet amazingly vivid. Many passages are beautifully written. An American sailor has a voice 'on a slant, like Elvis'; an old lady's wrists are 'lavender, her eyes rimless, congealed as eggs'. Galloway perfectly captures the solace an unhappy child can find in domesticity: she knows that a neat, ordered house is 'like being held'.
And yet she does go on. For all the exactitude of her writing, This is Not About Me did not hold me in the palm of its hand. In recreating and reclaiming the world she has so few photographs of, Galloway forgets to pull the reader along. Her tone is always the same, and the book's lack of pace is a problem: nothing much happens. Writing as clever and as lovely as this should not, by rights, be boring. But for me, there were times when one page felt every bit as long as a dreich Saltcoats Sunday circa 1962.