BOOK REVIEW: A CHILDHOOD MADE UP.
THE COMPLICATED HORROR of the genre of autobiography is three-fold. It’s about writing convincingly in the first person, which is never as easy as it sounds; it’s about the sense of permanence in a published piece of writing; as it is about the license to tell other people’s stories. Brent Meersman takes on all of this through the behemoth of mental illness in both of his parents and holds on through a narrative that, as it is hauntingly beautiful to read, so is it deeply difficult to imbibe. This is his A Childhood Made Up.
Meersman has a magnificent narrative skill. He writes with a great sense of detail that is not void of humour even in situations drenched with personal horror. And tiptoeing along nostalgic lines, this is a book as much about Meersman himself as it is about being the brother and the son of extremely complicated people in difficult circumstances.
Like Roger Cohen’s 2015 book The Girl from Human Street which conveys the contradictory South African context through reflections on the author’s mother’s mental illness, A Childhood Made Up is unflinching. Unlike the Cohen work, however, the writing is nimble and rather than enabling a perception of the mother as a subject or a victim, an empathetic reflection is cast deeply around her. As the work unfolds, it is as though Meersman is writing about a woman you know, one you love.
The work also bears comparison with Flora Rheta Schreiber’s 1973 publication Sybil, which endeavoured to put a meaningful face on the conditions of schizophrenia. Meersman’s writing is fresh and crisp and while it teeters in difficult directions, it never becomes self-pitying or cripplingly maudlin.
You get to understand and appreciate the energy and fierceness in Meersman’s mother as an artist before the monster of a mental institution crops up in her younger son’s representation of the difficult trajectory of her life. You get to meet his father through a similar lens which is as much coloured by filial love as it is by a bracing sense of honesty.
But as you look at the introspective little boy in a striped t-shirt on the cover of this book, and recall all the significant challenges this child faced and nurtured alone with his mum in the years before he started primary school, you wish to weep and celebrate simultaneously. It’s an odd kind of celebration. You come away not necessarily wanting to congratulate Meersman on exorcising his daemons, but to thank him for giving voice to some important jinis. For the sake of humanity.
Meersman is a prolific writer. This work is unequivocally his finest moment in his literary career so far. It is muscular and complex, yet clear and refined. It’s a tale of a youngster with a rich inner life, and an implicit understanding of self. Above all, it’s a testament to his being in the world.
- A Childhood Made Up: Living with My Mother’s Madness by Brent Meersman is published by Tafelberg, Cape Town (2020).