Colin Dayan’s brief but explosive memoir of her relationship to her mother should find a place among the more indelible life histories of the last several years. Unlike Jeannette Wall’s “The Glass Castle” or Tara Westover’s “Educated,” riveting accounts of tormented childhoods, and unlike Helen Macdonald’s mysterious “H Is for Hawk,” which has a chronology, more or less, Dayan’s book doesn’t read like a conventional narrative. It’s about a woman who tries to exorcise the ghost of her deceased mother through writing. As memories of her mother, a biracial woman from Haiti who passed for white in the largely Jim Crow South, force themselves into the daughter’s mind, she chronicles, fearlessly, the pain and confusion that both of them suffered as they tried to find their way in a segregated, class-bound world.
Each section concentrates on an aspect of the author’s experience, but none tells a straight story. Photographs, snippets of songs, moments of longing and regret, scenes of confusion, loss and horror become part of a mesmeric whole. The narrative starts and stops, doesn’t play by the usual temporal rules. Dayan’s story refuses to obey the logic of linear time, questions the finality of death, upends rationalist notions of cause and effect, and reproduces over and over the chaotic, un-rule-governed quality of actual human experience.
“In the Belly of Her Ghost” does not make unsettling assertions about the nature of reality in an explicit way; they are not the point of the story but its unavoidable substance. When your mother dies and comes back as a spider and makes droplets of blood appear on the walls, when her spidery presence is stamped on the veins of your own eye — anything to get attention — the supernatural is not a matter of belief but of life as you lived it.
The memoir insists on the uncanny power of physical objects, makes them come alive.
We sense the author reasoning to herself: Maybe if she can call her mother up on the page, dress her in ball gowns and jewels, capture the stunning beauty of her face and form, call her to account for her life of pretense — pretending to be white, to be upper middle class, to belong at the country club — but also sympathize with her for the agony this caused her, maybe if we can be made to see how unhappy she was with the husband who commanded this performance, and see how unable to support and care for her child she was since she herself hardly existed, maybe then, the author hopes, the mother will finally be able to let go.
Or maybe it’s the other way around.
In her repeated visits to Haiti, where her mother was born, in carrying her mother’s paintings, silver, china, crystal with her when she moves to take a prestigious job, in poring over the photographs of her mother that her father took compulsively, in remembering the lust in her mother’s voice on the phone with a lover, her absence at school functions, perhaps Dayan is trying to possess the mother she never really had.
She had a real mother, though, just not the one who bore her. Lucille, the African American maid who cared for Colin, was everything her mother was not: racially unambiguous, real and there. If Dayan’s mother haunts the book — destructive, passionate and despairing — Lucille cuts through the posturing with reminders of mortality. Lucille, writes Dayan, “gave me the chance not to live a lie.” Lucille patched her clothes, sang to her, approved of the world of snakes, frogs and spiders that Colin loved. Lucille understood things that were alive, things that could kill, things that died. “Bugs and dirt” is what it all comes down to in the end, said Lucille, “bugs and dirt.”
Things, like ghosts, know what they want.
The memoir insists on the uncanny power of physical objects, makes them come alive. The crazed quality of her mother’s things constantly erupts into the narrative: “diamonds stashed deep into a jar of cold cream … wicker baskets, with mangoes rotting, crosses hidden in jiffy bags, lizards bleeding in the dirt, and the heads of cocks wrapped in mosquito netting.” The combination of ornament, violence and rot spills over into Colin’s own possessions: her mutilated dolls still lie in the basement, their “lace dresses … intact, their hair … cut or shaved off; and their eyes, which I had not hurt … rotted, as if they had been eaten away by acid.” “Things, like ghosts,” says Dayan, “know what they want.” They keep coming back in her mind, all jumbled together.
Pursued by ghosts, unable to appease or escape them, Dayan casts a spell over the reader, who, immersed in her mind-expanding world of spirits, blood, and dirt, songs and snakes, her mother and the South, wishes the story didn’t have to end. And in a way it doesn’t have to. Because of the vividness of its scenes and the power of its language, and because it thrusts us into realms not usually visited in memoir, it will go on my shelf for a while, and then, I know, it will come back to life, a revenant, just as alive the second or third time around as it was before.
LARB Books, 180 pp., $15
Tompkins is professor emerita of English at Duke University, and author most recently of “Reading through the Night,” University of Virginia Press, 2018.