Bad Blood: A Memoir
The first two-thirds of Lorna Sage's tragicomic memoir seem oddly dispassionate. A respected British academician, she relates events and tells stories of her family without the pseudo-psychoanalysis that so often accompanies works of creative nonfiction. She hardly needs the analysis, since her story is chock full of odd characters and unusual circumstances.
Sage spends her earliest years growing up with her grandparents in north Wales, while her father is off fighting in the war. Her grandfather, a vicar and probably the most unusual of the characters, ministers to the community of Hamner. Not so fondly known as "the old devil," he loves books, although he is taken to blacking out the titles of his volumes in order to prevent indiscriminate borrowing. He carries on numerous affairs with local women, most infamously with the best friend of his then teenage daughter.
Her grandmother, a strong character in her own right, carries her resentment of her husband to the nth degree, refusing any part of her role as wife. "Sex, genteel poverty, the responsibilities of motherhood...were in her view stinking offenses, devilish male plots to degrade her." She goes so far as to use her husband's personal diary to blackmail him for a larger share of his pay.
In starting the book, I assumed the war in question was World War II, and it was. However, the setting and circumstances hearken back to an earlier, grubbier time. Sage describes going to the local, somewhat Dickensian school, the children "...all wearing damp, knitted pixie hats and rubbing our chilblains while we waited to be marched over to the parish hall for our regulation dinner of whale-meat stew." And her grandmother is unable to find it in herself to perform any housekeeping duties, so they live in near total squalor, which symbolizes a larger sense of childishness throughout the novel. "The family, though, is dangerously fissile, falling apart, orphaned, since nobody wants to play the part of parent."
After the war ends, Sage returns to life with both her parents and finds her mother, like her grandmother, with an "acquired ineptitude" when it came to adult responsibilities. "She had a kind of genius for travesty when it came to domestic science." She matter-of-factly chronicles her mother's food phobias in one of the book's funniest sections. "All meat had to be made safe by boiling, or by simmering it in a lake of spitting fat in the oven for hours, and even then it was dangerously full of knots of choking gristle and shards and spikes of bone which she'd warn us against with a shudder."
The abrogation of parental responsibility becomes sharply clear as Lorna enters adolescence. The work becomes quite a bit more introspective as she describes her need to grow up quickly and her need to commune with kindred spirits in an adult world. Sage believes she inherited her grandfather's passions, which in her, manifest themselves in bookish tendencies, although she notes, "I had acquired from Grandpa vanity, ambition and discontent along with literacy...my addiction to print was part of my general delinquency."
The "bad blood" of the title also comes into play as Sage seems to have inherited her grandfather's amorous passions. Definitely boy crazy and a little bit naïve, Lorna finds herself pregnant at 16. She marries the father and they keep the baby, surprising both sets of parents and the horrible nurses at the maternity hospital. The young couple is determined to continue their education at Durham University where they both study literature. The book ends with the couple's graduation from university, although Sage does provide enough information in an Afterword to satisfy reader's curiosity. Her experiences show her as a symbol for a post war woman.
Sage is partly rooted in an earlier time with her young family while, at the same time, she pursues a career that would be considered unusual for a woman in the early 1960s. As she says, "...we broke the rules and got away with it, for better and for worse, we're part of the shape of things to come."
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011