Book Club Member Josh Anastasia on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water


The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch opens with a sad, heart-wrenching story of a stillborn baby.

The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless and 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. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, That feels good, doesn’t it. The Water. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit. Just let it. Ripped from vagina to rectum, sewn closed. Falling water on a body. – pg. 25

I’ve read The Chronology of Water twice since I received it. I stopped reading all of the other books I had going in order to read this, once I read past that first page and realized this was going to be a book that would consume my time more than I had originally thought. I was prepared for something out of the ordinary. I read reviews of it before I started reading and I knew that this book was going to take me on an emotional ride, something I wasn’t exactly looking forward to.

A lot of people don’t like memoir and I think I could be included in that group of people. There’s a certain type of memoir that I love (Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Nick Flynn, Dave Eggers) that touches on something more than memoir. The language is what I’m mostly attracted to, the story. Memoir isn’t something that should be taken as fact; it’s the author’s truth and nothing more. Memory changes, fades, as time moves past the events in question, and our version of the truth is slightly different than what actually happened. Authors of memoir know this and any reader of worth should know this as well.

Deb Olin Unferth, in an interview posted at Book Slut, says this about memoir:

Another matter, however, is that the arc of a memoir is very different than, say, a novel or a story because the tensions are different, the ambitions are different. A novel, traditionally, follows an arc with rising conflict that reaches some sort of climax, and then falls into a resolution. Even if you’re trying to write a novel that is not following that track, you’re still in conversation with that model. But a memoir doesn’t do that. You can’t depend on certain tensions that are natural in a novel. For example the readers know a bit about what happened to the protagonist: the author lived, wasn’t severely brain-damaged or destroyed because there she is, writing this book, bio right on the back cover. So you have to find different ways to develop that tension.

A memoir is about time and the imperfectness of memory and the invention of the self. And it is from those considerations that you find your tensions.

Yuknavitch does something amazing with The Chronology of Water that most other memoirs don’t quite have. Yuknavitch’s language is beautiful – Roxane Gay called it “erotic” – and it borders on poetry in some instances.

All the events of my life swim in and out between each other. Without chronology. Like in dreams. So if I am thinking of a memory of a relationship, or one about riding a bike, or about my love for literature and art, or when I first touched my lips to alcohol, or how much I adored my sister, or the day my father first touched me – there is no linear sense. Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory – but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear. pg. 28

Yuknavitch writes about her past from a distance, an onlooker. Maybe she’s too far past it to go fully into the memories and to showcase her emotional outlook on them. The writing is beautiful and in some passages you can get a sense of the emotional turmoil she writes about, but while her language is spot on, it doesn’t often carry over the emotions she certainly must have felt to the reader. This inconsistency bothered me slightly, not enough for The Chronology of Water to be anything less than amazing.

What resonated with me more than the language was Yuknavitch’s self-destructive habits and tendencies she so often experienced in her younger life.

You see it is important to understand how damaged people don’t always know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It’s a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of feeling something good. The shame of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red As on our chests. – pg. 198-99

The Chronology of Water has been one of the better books I’ve read this year, one of my favorite memoirs, and I’ll probably read it again for the third time as soon as I’m done reading everything else floating on top of my to-read list.

Josh Anastasia is a reader. This is his blog. More from this author →