As the title indicates, this memoir is a bluntly told examination of the lives of the author’s dead parents, focused around her trying to understand them through the lens of discovered materials and interviews.
Sentimentality and emotion figure in, but author Anya Yurchyshyn doesn’t mince words in being honest about her complicated feelings towards her parents and her relationship to them when they were alive. Of course, as we get older and learn more about the people these authority figures were, we’re often surprised by what we find out about our parents.
She had a dysfunctional upbringing with this troubled pair: her father embarked for somewhat mysterious work in his native Ukraine and died there in a car accident. Or was it an ordered hit? This becomes an intriguing focal point later in the narrative, considering that country’s politics and corruption, which he couldn’t have remained immune to thanks to his business dealings. Her mother, a dedicated Sierra Club volunteer, descended into alcoholism while raising Anya and her sister, eventually succumbing to the disease’s harsh effects.
These are snapshots, literally and figuratively, of her parents both before her birth and as they age during her life. She struggles with reconciling her remembered perceptions to those of others, gained through interviews, of the same time or events or personalities. Same for hard evidence that conflicts with facts she’s quite sure are true.
Anya begins a journey of researching her parents’ lives when, while cleaning out her mother’s home after she’s died, she discovers love letters written to her mother by her father, and is incredulous.
Believing that they’d never been in love, as I had for so long, was much easier than knowing that they had been. Accepting this gave me something entirely new, and unexpected, to mourn. I hated what happened to them, and that it could happen to anyone. Falling out of love, or waking up in the middle of a life that you didn’t want, was one of the most painful things I could imagine.
This is such an intriguing idea. We all form pictures of our parents based on what we perceive at the time, and usually these are revised as time marches on and we ourselves reach the ages that they were in our memories, when we were confused by, angry at, indifferent to, or even in awe of them, whatever the case may be.
So the book is a chronicle of her attempt to track down the people and threads of stories from her parents’ lives, and try to figure out what the real stories were. Gripping her imagination is the idea that these two people who she remembered as being at odds with each other, deeply unhappy in their own ways, were once intensely in love. This comes alongside some stories of her own childhood and adolescence, also framed in connection to her troubled parental relationships.
As she sifts through these memories, she provides portrayals of other family members as they play roles in her history. Some of her descriptions are perfect, like this one of her great-grandmother: “She was a worn-down woman who took pleasure in wearing down others.” There are some strikingly evocative ones like this, that say so much about a person in just a few words. I love reading that kind of writing.
The most interesting part for me was one of the things that drew me to it in the first place – the long shadow of the Soviet Union and the role of Ukraine in her family’s lives. Her father, working for an international bank, dedicated much of his life to nation building in Ukraine, trying to establish better systems than the corrupt old ones the country was working with. There’s a heavy running question throughout about the true circumstances of his death.
Ultimately, I didn’t connect with this book and struggled to finish it. I’m not sure exactly what it was – she’s an able writer, she weaves in history of a region that fascinates me and examines events from past and present angles and the perspectives of multiple people – all things that I usually love, but something didn’t work. I think it might have been that the narrative voice didn’t appeal, while that may not bother others. I hate to say that it might have been that I didn’t connect with the author herself, because plenty of times I haven’t felt strongly for an author and it doesn’t affect my read of the book, but that crept into my mind too.
I also found myself wondering often where the story was going. But this isn’t a book that’s meant to really go somewhere, it’s about the exploration on the way. I like that anyway sometimes too, but again, something just didn’t click here. I could never really get fully interested or invested in the story. Maybe it was the feeling of insensitivity that often comes through. So when it seemed that there was deliberate coldness, or lots of bad treatment between Anya and her parents (they’re all just kind of mean and bitter, which doesn’t excuse it but does make it fairly understandable) I felt too uncomfortable reading it to say that I enjoyed it. Some of the ugly detail also felt included without much of a greater purpose.
If I’d been asked, I would have said I was happy that my father didn’t make me listen to his stories. But now I wished he’d told me so much more.
I think the sentiments she experienced, like that above and particularly the ones revolving around doubt and misperception that led to researching and writing this were relatable and understandable, and I admire what she did in trying to seek out the truth. This could be recommended as a potentially interesting slice of psychology, but it wasn’t for me.
My Dead Parents: A Memoir
by Anya Yurchyshyn
published March 27, 2018 by Crown
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.