Some women clutch their momma stories close, the hows and wheres and whens of making another life. Lucy had told me how she'd started drinking water straight from the Atlantic Ocean when she was pregnant with Dora. She'd skimmed waves with her fingers and then cupped her hands to drink. My story was the ugliest one I could think of, vomiting on the highway and waiting to bleed in the desert, eating myself sick between the outsize dresses of another woman's brokedown dreams. (from The Gin Closet, pages 80-81)
It's hard to believe The Gin Closet is Leslie Jamison's first novel. From the very first page, I fell in love with Jamison's beautiful, metaphorical prose. It's been awhile since I've read a book written in this style, and Jamison reminded me why it's my favorite. Her writing is descriptive without being overly so, and despite the raw, harsh words, she creates brilliant images that bring all the pain to life and make you really feel for her characters.
The Gin Closet is the story of two deeply hurt women, told in alternating viewpoints, and how they are unable to save each other no matter how hard they try. The book opens with Stella caring for her dying grandmother, Lucy. She's unhappy with her life in New York, working as a personal assistant to a beast of a woman and sleeping with a married man who doesn't care for her as much as she does for him. Jamison provides few details about Stella's childhood, but she seems to have a shaky relationship with her activist lawyer mom, Dora, and her many troubles lead to anorexia -- a disease that in some ways empowered Stella, gave her a sense of control. Stella is a recovering anorexic, but the way she talks about the years in which she starved herself makes it seem as though there's some pride involved.
Nearing death, Lucy calls out for Matilda, and Stella learns she has an aunt and wonders why she was never told of Tilly's existence. Rather than allow her mother to send an impersonal message to Tilly informing her of Lucy's death, Stella decides to deliver the message in person. Tilly's story is even more painful than Stella's, involving a history of alcoholism, prostitution, and abuse. Jamison gives Tilly a voice that is so raw and honest, it almost physically hurt reading her story.
The Gin Closet is a character-driven novel, and the only real plot involves Stella and Tilly leaving their lives behind to start a new one with Tilly's workaholic son, Abe. Jamison gives you a lot to think about, from the way Tilly and Stella display their pain in the way they treat their bodies to how their interactions with men account for much of their hurt. The alternating viewpoint means readers get a chance to see events through the eyes of both characters, bringing to mind the differences between how people perceive themselves and how they are seen by the rest of the world.
Although the book is so heavy and so sad -- and in some instances downright disturbing -- I couldn't put it down. The Gin Closet is hard to digest, and after turning the last page, I felt depressed. I'm not sure what this says about me, but I like books that are dark and emotional, that really make me feel something. My only real complaint about the book is that I wanted more resolution at the end for one of the characters. Maybe I missed something, but I had no inkling of what was in store for her next. Still, The Gin Closet is one of the best books I've read so far this year.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Gin Closet from Simon & Schuster for review purposes. I am an Amazon affiliate.
© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.