A handful of ants

Helen Stevenson is touched by memories of mendacity; The Liars' Club by Mary Karr Picador, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
The Liars' Club has a great title for a novel, but passes in the catalogue for a memoir. A memoir always sounds more like the article you kept your memories in than the memories themselves, one in which they invariably grow stale; some grim black box on grandmother's dressing table, full of old photographs and badges and a letter or two.

Mary Karr's account of her Texan childhood has nothing of the reliquary about it. If there is a shadow on some of her memories, it is a shadow of anguish, not of old age. If the picture is ever blurred, it is not through lapse of memory, but because the image has been singed by fires.

It opens with an undeciphered memory. Mary and her sister Lecia are seven and nine, alone in their house with the sheriff and the family doctor. Their house is in a town once judged as one of the ten ugliest places in America, "one of the blackest squares on the cancer map". Each member of the family is doing what characterises them best: mother is drunk, mad and missing; father is working the graveyard shift at the oil refinery, reliable enough to set your watch by, but reliably absent. Lecia pretends to sleep in the arms of the sheriff, faking calm in the face of catastrophe, and Mary is trying to pinch her awake. It is a recurring gesture, this pinching someone awake - "Is this really happening? Can this nightmare be real?" It takes a whole book for the writer, let alone the reader, to decipher the origins of this one nightmare among many.

Despite Karr's honest-to-God assurances of veracity ("I shit you not," she keeps saying, "I shit you not"), the title is unnerving. Mary's father sometimes let her sit in on the sessions in the back room of Fischer's Bait Shop, where he would pay out the thin twine of his artful fabulations, mesmerising his listeners with recollections from his own childhood. During a lucid account of "How my daddy died. He hanged hisself", which even seven-year-old Mary recognises for "easily the biggest lie Daddy ever told", she drifts off into a memory of her dead grandmother, whose hand hung slack over the bedside, with little red ants running up and down the thoroughfares of her palm. "I've plumb forgot where I am, for an instant, which is how a good lie should take you. At the same time, I'm more where I was inside myself than before Daddy started talking, which is how lies can tell you the truth." Then she remarks, "The lie stayed built between him and the other men like a fence put up to keep them from knowing him better."

Any evocation of childhood that achieves a genuine Proustian quality, but with short sentences and more laughs, has to be read to be appreciated. When reviewers insist "I laughed, I cried" one is usually tempted to enquire sourly, "Yes? And when you came off the drugs?" But here it would not be untrue. Tales of blistering suffering and violence, often occasioned by Mary's mother's drinking, are laced with a laconic wit and a ferocious love which light up every page. The wit is never bitter; the love is not the pious love of the therapied-out adult, but the fierce loyalty of a child, that needy love which explains why children would rather suffer all manner of cruelties than be deprived of the essential presence of the parent who inflicts them.

If there is one aspect of The Liar's Club which keeps you flicking back nervously to the title, it is the language of its descriptions, which is at once too exact to be believable as recollection, and yet too powerful not to be true. This is a study of, and not in, mendacity, in which it is made quite clear that it is the lies of omission which cause the real damage, not the lies of invention. Mary's mother's lies of omission create a black hole in the family's past, which not even her father's joyful fictions, nor this breathtakingly shrewd and loving memoir, could ever be expected to repair.