Book review: On Sunset, by Kathryn Harrison
Never mind that we live in Los Angeles and that I was born in 1961; my childhood belongs to my mother’s parents, who, in the way of old people, have returned themselves to their pasts, taking me along.
Author Kathryn Harrison writes a memoir of a slice of her childhood, a well-adjusted one considering some of the troubling family dynamics she’s written about in other autobiographical books. On Sunset is centered around her maternal grandparents, who raised Harrison after her flighty young mother with a spending problem gave her up to them. The family’s home on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles is a strong presence, if not a kind of character of its own in this story, particularly as the family struggles financially in later years and eventually has to let the house go, with all of the pain and emotion tied up in such a loss. It’s especially poignant seen from a child’s perspective.
I’ve written before about my complicated feelings for Harrison – her ability to lay her inner and emotional lives completely bare and pick incidents and anxieties apart in meticulous detail sometimes gets uncomfortably heavy, it can be wearying despite her self-analysis being impressive and her confessions brave. But I think I enjoyed On Sunset the most out of her work I’ve read, as she trains her analytic eye more outwardly than inwardly and the result is absorbing.
It does have a melancholy aspect, wrapped up in the nostalgia of recalling childhood. And there’s a certain sadness that comes with being very close to grandparents, as we realize we’ll have to say goodbye to them much sooner than most parents.
Harrison’s grandmother, Margaret, always heavily played up her youth as a “foreign aristocrat”, very much entrenched in the British caste system she was born and raised in. She was from the British-born, China-dwelling Jewish Sassoon family, with famed poet and World War I soldier Siegfried Sassoon on a branch of the family tree. She became Harrison’s grandfather’s second wife late in both their lives, after his first wife’s death and once Margaret finally felt ready to settle down after immigrating to America.
Their daughter was something of a surprise, and an even bigger one was when they found themselves raising their granddaughter. Harrison describes the strangeness of that situation, but how it didn’t seem odd to her – their Britishisms, the unusual snack food, how her world was perceived by her classmates, the numerous old clocks in the house that never chimed in tandem (maybe because I also grew up with my grandparents in a house of clocks chiming off schedule, I connected with this story in an emotional way, but I think it encompasses sentimental factors for many readers.)
She loves her grandparents fiercely, delighting in the stories of their lives. Her grandfather worked on the railroads in Alaska, among other adventurous endeavors, and they both have richly detailed, immensely fascinating (even more so to a child) stories from their young lives abroad in the violence and upheaval of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Harrison fills in their carefully repeated stories with background of the locations. The text is sprinkled with photos, which seems appropriately Harrison’s style – no author can quite lay a life bare, down to the last detail, like she does.
Even amidst her melancholic, often darkly tinged storytelling, interspersed with childhood scenes, interactions with her troubled mother, and the bittersweet love she had for her quirky but caring grandparents, there are some light, touchingly funny moments. She describes Christian Science, the religion her Jewish grandparents converted to in California, as “one of the handful of fin-de-siecle New Thought movements that eased assimilation while leaving Jesus at a comfortable remove.” And her description of the winding, hairpin-turn drive to the house, where visitors are then greeted with a slippery, fall-inducing entryway rug, is hilariously, cleverly written.
I’m in awe of her writing ability at times, which is why when I find myself confused about what transpired in a passage or underwhelmed, it feels all the more significant knowing what she’s capable of. She can express so much, often by using a simple but powerful line like “It seems to be a property of fathers in my family to misplace themselves.” Elsewhere, though not frequently, her writing turns a bit vague and and flourishy and obscures what was actually happening.
Her descriptions are characteristically evocative. On how she prefers her imagination’s conjuring of her grandfather meeting his first wife in Alaska to the banal truth: There’s an upright piano in the tent, and a movie flickering on canvas stirred by a breeze. But the movie is silent; no one plays the piano, the dark is filled with her voice. The dogs howl, the rivers break to pieces, mosquitoes whine and dive at ears and eyes, the audience fidgets and coughs on split log benches, but for him all there is, is the one voice, nothing else.
Her grandfather is such a warm and wonderful figure – he tells her bedtime stories of his London youth, his time learning cabinetmaking in Berlin, the adventure of becoming an engineer in Canada. In a lovely scene, she recalls his building her a reading chair nestled in an avocado tree in their yard.
Memory and its unreliability, and the comparison of truth to tale are common themes, and despite being familiar ground they’re well-woven into the story here, almost seamlessly.
It contains one of the loveliest, most bittersweet endings I can recall recently, as she walks through the Sunset home in her memory, one final time, taking note of the changes that time and memory wrought:
The storm is over, the wind stilled, but flakes spin lazily down, and nothing can stop them. Bit by bit, the outlines of things disappear.
A story for nostalgic, sentimental types; quiet and slowly paced, must be able to endure some melancholy and a time-jumping narrative – but well worth it for some excellent writing and the life stories of two compelling figures.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.