Just Breathe Normally, by Peggy Shumaker

A few years ago, I read a lot of memoirs in preparation for writing my own, and was surprised by the variety of approaches. One might be a linear narrative about a particular event or period of time, such as Jill Kerr Conway's The Road to Coorain while another might play with time and perception, such as Nabokov's Speak, Memory. One might set a personal story against world events, such as Penelope Lively's Oleander, Jacaranda while another focuses on the author's experience, such as Marguerite Duras's The Lover.

In this memoir of healing and survival, Shumaker has provided a linear narrative describing a serious biking accident she suffered and her slow recovery. However, that narrative makes up only a small fraction of the book's pages. Thus, it is not so much a central road from which the author makes occasional excursions as it is a rare blaze on a tree to indicate that you haven't wandered off the path.

Instead, the book is primarily a collection of vignettes capturing some fragment of memory or family legend. These pieces are beautifully written, in lyrical prose that had me reading and rereading simply to savor the language and the swift twist of meaning, as surprising and satisfying as the last line of a haiku. No matter how short—most are only a few sentences or a paragraph in length—each piece captures emotion with an immediacy rare in recounted memories.

In these vignettes, Shumaker describes moments from her parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' lives, imagined from family stories and photos. She describes memories from her childhood: joy when a pinata bursts showering her with candy, fear when an arroyo floods carrying off a reckless child. A later set of vignettes concerns scuba diving with her husband. But mostly she uses these tesserae to build a picture of life with her parents, two deeply flawed people, who had too many children too soon and struggled with alcohol and illness, abuse and early death.

The variety and scope of the vignettes may provide a clue for my lingering very slight sense of dissatisfaction with the book as a whole. I loved the prose and enjoyed every minute of reading this book. Intellectually, I recognise how well the form—these tesserae arranged in seemingly random order—reflect the fragmentary nature of memory itself, especially after a traumatic brain injury.

However, I was surprised to reach the last page because I felt that the mosaic of pieces had not yet cohered into a picture. As one person in my book club asked, intending to prompt discussion, what was the story? Sure, okay, survival. And the scars, physical and psychological, that we carry. But there seems to be so much more here, a potential story that I cannot quite see, probably due to my own dim-wittedness. Of course, that is the way life is, and perhaps the very open-endedness is the point: to carry all that complexity into the future.

The narrative of the accident seemed designed to tie the shorter pieces together, although it didn’t fulfill that function, for me at least. Rather, it seemed to distract from the accumulating picture built up by the beautiful fragments. At the same time, the shorter pieces did not seem to me to enhance the accident narrative. I would have been tempted to separate this book into two books, but certainly found it interesting to see how this unusual structure played out.

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