I guess that everyone has a moment in their childhood when they suddenly realise that what is normal in their house doesn’t necessarily happen in other homes. Usually this is something minor, something that ultimately becomes a familiar routine or in-joke. However, for some, this realisation can be more stark, more defining in terms of how they see their relationship with their parents. Nicole Harkin’s memoir sees her coming to terms with the way her parents treated each other, and with the way they treated their children.
We sat around and retold funny family stories, like the time years earlier when Dad had forgotten Montana at the store.
Don’t all parents forget their children in stores sometimes?
Tilting starts in 1996 and her father is sick. So sick that, in a few pages time, he is hospitalised and the family fear they will lose him. Harkin has already started flipping between memories, moving back in time to a family trip to Legoland, and she begins to reveal the nature of her relationship with her father, telling us they ‘had enjoyed each other’s company on that trip for once.’ It transpires that Harkin’s father has had a long-term girlfriend. He survives his illness and this is when the real battles begin.
As the book progresses, we learn that Harkin’s relationship with her father has always been complicated. Her desire to be loved by him means that she overlooks casual cruelties on his part as she grows up. As an adult, she is able to identify the control he wishes to exert over the family, even from a distance – there were many instances when I was taken aback by his selfishness and I suppose he’d now be identified as a narcissistic personality. Her relationship with her mother, ‘Linda’, is shaped by her father’s behaviour, and by Linda’s determination to ‘press on’. Linda is presented as both formidable and vulnerable, and Harkin’s memoir is full of love for her mother, even if Linda isn’t always easy to live with – ‘sometimes pressing on meant scaring the shit out of your children.’
This is a searingly honest portrayal of a family pulled in different directions, particularly when illness looms. It isn’t all bleak, however, and Harkin is able to scoop out moments of nuanced humour within the emotional turmoil they live through. I particularly enjoyed the description of the parish priest: ‘He wasn’t well liked by the parish because, among other things, he’d told our church choir that they were horrible singers.’
The structure works well, moving backwards and forwards to create the dense layers which make up family relationships. I really enjoyed this account, harrowing though some of the details are, and Harkin is an honest and interesting voice – she recaptures the confusions of a child, the self-obsessions of an adolescent, and the upset an adult faces when the old certainties are crumbling. It reminded me in part of Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors – we are all products of our upbringing and our parents’ behaviour will play out, one way or the other, for years to come.
My thanks to Rachel Gilbey @rararesources and to Black Rose Writing for organising a copy of Tilting for review.
Tilting, A Memoir – Blurb
We only learned about our father’s girlfriend after he became deathly ill and lay in a coma 120 miles from our home.
Overhearing the nurse tell Linda–since I was nine I had called my mom by her first name–about the girlfriend who came in almost every day to visit him when we weren’t there confirmed that the last moment of normal had passed us by without our realizing it. Up to then our family had unhappily coexisted with Dad flying jumbo jets to Asia while we lived in Montana. We finally came together to see Dad through his illness, but he was once again absent from a major family event–unable to join us from his comatose state. This is the moment when our normal existence tilted.
Dad recovered, but the marriage ailed, as did Linda, with cancer. Our family began to move down an entirely different path with silver linings we wouldn’t see for many years.
In this candid and compassionate memoir which recently won a Gold Award in The Wishing Shelf Book Award, Nicole Harkin describes with an Impressionist’s fine eye the evolution of a family that is quirky, independent, uniquely supportive, peculiarly loving and, most of all, marvelously human.
Book Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO1niSUWsuA
Nicole Harkin currently resides in Washington, DC with her husband and two small children. She works as a writer and family photographer. As a Fulbright Scholar during law school, Nicole lived in Berlin, Germany where she studied German environmentalism. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and you are here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on mystery set in Berlin. Her photography can be seen at http://www.nicoleharkin.com.
Social Media Links