Cherry by Mary Karr

Elena Lappin acclaims a second slice of youthful passion from a great memoirist
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The Independent Culture

In her unforgettable first memoir The Liars' Club, Mary Karr, a poet and critic, told the extraordinary story of her childhood in a dreary Texas refinery town. Drawing on astonishingly vivid and precise memories of her early years, she managed to relive, in poignant detail, the daily fears, joys and revelations of the little girl she once was, and recreate for us a world of epic suffering within one small, feral family. For me, it was a memoir which had the purgative power of the best of fiction. The ending unveiled the adult Mary's understanding of the sources of her mother's mad, self-destructive behaviour, and the weakness behind her father's monumental strength.

The Liars' Club (Picador, £6.99) is written by a master of poetically slangy prose, a language so alive and original it makes the telling of acutely painful experiences seem like child's play. You relax into a light adventure or innocent beauty, wholly unprepared for the sudden jolts of harrowing violence experienced by the tiny "little Mary". You cry at her dark loneliness, you rejoice at her humour and defiance. When you finish the last chapter, you quite simply celebrate her survival. The catharsis is so complete that it is easy to forget that after that childhood, life went on.

It did, of course, and in Cherry, Mary Karr has created a natural sequel to her first memoir, tracing her adolescence with the same honesty and luminosity with which she limned her childhood. This honesty prevents her from embellishing the truth, adding a wonderfully self-deprecating tone: "In actual written artifacts from my past, I sound way less smart than I tend to recall having been." It must be said that her teens lack the near-mythical quality of her early years, and perhaps this is something to be grateful for. Mary the child transcended the stifling boundaries of her swampy home town by revelling in the quiet heroism and subversive idiosyncrasies of her parents, and her impressively level-headed older sister. Mary the slowly maturing adolescent acknowledges the distance between herself and her family, and becomes immersed in her own world of literature, deep friendships and erotic awakenings.

She seems to spend most of her teenage years waiting for her breasts to grow, an unfair late development for a young girl experiencing a rich multitude of sexual feelings, crushes and loves, big and small. All these are chronicled in a uniquely direct and beautiful manner. Madonna's most recent hit song, "What Is It Like for a Girl," could be the subtitle of Karr's memoir. One boy made her feel an early kind of desire: "The cool fire circled more in my abdomen than between my legs, and it was vague and smoke gray." Later, a perfect kiss makes her "understand about waves and cross tides and how jellyfish float and why rivers empty themselves in the Gulf... even though I'm more still in the plush warmth of his mouth than I can ever get in church, my whole body is purring."

The much-fantasised yet dreaded moment of losing her virginity – the "cherry" of the title – never quite moves out of the shadow of Mary's darkest secret. As an eight-year-old, she was raped by an older boy near her house; and, when she stayed home from school with a fever, a male baby-sitter had forced his penis into her mouth. These abuses are merely alluded to in Cherry, but described in full bitter detail in the first memoir, in a voice which is a seamless blend of the child's pain with the adult's undying memory of it.

Karr describes Leechfield as having a "mind-crushing atmosphere of sameness", as a place "worthy of escape". One form of escape was with drugs: "Sure you were told that drugs cut a coiled and downward swerving path to degradation if not death. That was part of their allure." This fairly ordinary route down a psychedelic path will lead Mary to leave Leechfield, at the young age of 17, with a group of like-minded surfers. Their destination is, ostensibly, California, but for many of them it will be a much darker place: death, jail, suicide.

Where the first memoir was cathartic, Cherry is merely devastating: "Kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told." In her two masterful memoirs, Mary Karr has had the courage to unfreeze those wastelands, speaking, I am sure, for many of her silent friends.