Wednesday, July 3, 2013

ARC Review: The Liberty Tree by Suzanne Harrington

Title: The Liberty Tree: Drunk to Sober via Love, Death, Disintegration & Freedom
Author: Suzanne Harrington
Genre: Memoir Non-Fiction

Goodreads rating: 4.00 out of 5.00 (4+ ratings)
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A touching and brutally honest memoir, painful yet ultimately life affirming in its humor, warmth, and candor

Suzanne Harrington did all the thing that adults do, long before she'd grown up: met Leo, married, had babies. She also partied, was homeless for a while, and drank—and drank. She headed toward disintegration, with Leo at her side, locked deep in himself. Then, waking to the wreckage of yet another lost weekend, she stopped drinking—and Leo, her companion and enabler, became a stranger. They separated. Newly sober, and freed from her demons, Suzanne embraced life. Leo chose escape. Early one morning the police arrived. A body had been found hanging from a tree. When it was all over, and Suzanne had buried Leo, and helped her children to grieve, she sat down and wrote the story of their father's life. This is for them. It is for the memory of Leo. It is also for anyone who has partied too hard, found life unbearable, or avoided the truth. It is touching, hilarious, brutally honest, and utterly compelling.

Review by Chantelle

Finally, I've finished this book! I'm honestly so relieved because for a while there, I didn't think I'd be able to even get to the end. I don't mean that I hated it or that the subject matter was too controversial, it was that shockingly, I found this memoir quite boring. I wasn't expecting this at all. I just didn't experience the warmth, or the humour, or the life affirming account that was promised in the blurb. I think this was mainly because I didn't empathise with Suzanne's narration which while was 'honest', I often found to resemble a babbling that'd drone on and on and on with no apparent direction.

What I'd like to say firstly before I go on, is that it's quite hard to review a memoir, as it details someone's life (who is very much not fictional), and so I don't feel I have the authority to place judgement on how they've lived their life. So I'm mainly going to discuss my opinions on how this book was written.

The Liberty Tree begins quite abstractly with a dedication to the author's ex-husband Leo, followed by the image of a 'blue' man hanging on a tree. The voice of the narrative is directed towards her children, with the purpose of telling them more about their father. With this in mind, it launches into a narrative beginning in 1998 where amid parties, copious drugs and booze, our narrator first meets her then-to-be husband Leo. From then on, it's a wild chronicle about their life in London, even more parties, more pills, more alcohol, and then a trip to India where they embrace life as hippies and backpackers, and then to Barcelona, and then to back home, and then to Brighton. I really had no idea where the narrator was heading with this, I didn't get why in the world she was spending some many chapters detailing how many times she got drunk, and how this linked with the 'blue' man when she hardly details Leo's thoughts, or actions away from her spiralling lifestyle. So the memoir, with the purpose of telling the children more about their father, is a chronicle that just lists the copious amounts of illicit substances she was addicted to, not even kidding, there were page long paragraphs of just different types of cocktails or pills.  I understand that this is where the 'candor' comes in, but as she only writes about herself, and hardly mentions others - even as, I repeat, the purpose of the memoir was to tell the children more about their father, and when the main criticism she has of her life was that she was too selfish - I found it ironic how self-orientated her memoir was. It became a type of atonement, as if she's trying to excuse her actions by showing her kids how worldly, and adventurous their mum was, but I found it exhausting how she blames everyone else for her problems. Even when it came to self-examination, she blamed her addiction. It doesn't make for very sympathetic reading. I often thought to myself that I'd rename this, The Memoir of the Forty Year Old Who Never Grew Up - a sort of peter pan for middle-aged alcoholics.

The narrative was very colloquial, and lacked the eloquent prose that would subtly convey to the reader that the author wasn't actually a unstable nut case. I found it unusual that the memoir starts with her as an addict, there doesn't seem to be a "pre-alcohol" Suzanne, so the addiction to alcohol doesn't just come to define her - from the beginning, it does define her. That being said, she obviously had a rough life, and I thought did quite a good job of explaining the mindset of an addict. My favourite passage was probably:

"It's not as if I don't realize I have a drink problem. Of course I fucking know, I'm not daft. But knowing it isn't enough to make you stop. Junkies are more than aware that they are junkies when their arms are falling off from gangrene, yet they still stick a dirty needle in. Drunks will drink even they are desperate not to. Self knowledge affords us nothing." -p210

I found the memoir got a lot more interesting when it caught up to the year 2011 (last quarter of the memoir). It had a lot more detail into her psyche, which I think is attributed by her being able to write from her (then) current thoughts, instead of trying to recount her thoughts, where memory of course is not as accurate. As a memoir, I think I also would've preferred maybe some pictures, or something to make it more personal, to involve the reader a bit more. There were too many assumptions made since the reader is supposed to be the 'children'. We are not even told the names of the children which I found absurd when she'd make comments like, oh that song is what we named you after etc. I found it hard to be sympathetic, to engage in her narrative because I felt too much like an outsider; I wasn't her, nor was I her children, I was confused for a lot of the novel until the end where she finally explains why she wrote the memoir (pro tip: that would've been useful in the intro).

What I found interesting however, was that this memoir reminded me of an ethical issue that was brought up in a discussion at uni where I study medicine. There is a scene where the author fails to abstain from alcohol, and she thinks, If I drink tonight it won't be my fault. They [her friends] bought the booze, not me. 
Picture to yourself, if you took an alcoholic, and locked them in a room with a bottle of whiskey, is it your fault or theirs if they drink the alcohol. I think this scenario summarises the memoir, which is a balancing act between self-deprecation where she blames her addiction for her lack of mothering skills, and Leo whose qualities resulted in a lack lustre marriage which encouraged her vices.

If it hasn't been apparent from this review, I wasn't a fan of this memoir. I don't think it accomplished much of what was promised in the blurb and if it becomes one of the most talked about memoirs of 2013, label me surprised.

Overall: 5/10
Plot: 3/5
Writing: 2.5/5
Characters: 2/5
Cover: 2/5