The Three Of Us: A Family Story, by Julia Blackburn

The memoirs of a bohemian family addicted to booze, sex and violence

The trio in the title of this surprising and illuminating book consists of the author and her parents. Thomas Blackburn, the son of a religious fanatic, was a poet who consumed an oceanic amount of booze. He was violent in his cups and for a lengthy period became addicted to the barbiturate sodium amytal.

The lethal combination of drug and alcohol exacerbated his tendency to violence and caused him to growl and bark like a mad dog. His wife, Rosalie de Meric, was a painter whose only serious addiction was to sex with younger men. When her daughter developed into an attractive teenager, Rosalie started to suffer intense fits of jealousy, turning the innocent and unwitting Julia into a sexual rival.

Julia Blackburn's bohemian childhood and youth possessed all the ingredients of the "misery memoir": the wife-beating; the uncontrollable hysteria; the desperate need for immediate physical gratification. Yet The Three of Us is not set in that depressing populist mould. Her father, so contemptuous of the women to whom he was attracted, was invariably kind to her, teaching her poetry and answering the barrage of questions she put with the respect due to her intelligence.

She was never threatened by him, as she was by Rosalie who, after her divorce from Thomas, was transformed into the kind of landlady perhaps only Strindberg could have imagined. Her male lodgers were hand-picked and required to display their skills in the bedroom. When they passed this essential test, they were more or less ordered to leave Julia alone. Some chose not to obey, and humiliation and misery ensued. The most alarming event casts Julia, for once, in an unflattering light.

The family values recorded in these pages are absurd, confused and even unpleasant. How can sane and cultivated people behave in this fashion? Well, they can, they did, and such self-inflicted complications are the very stuff of life and literature.

The Three of Us has been ingeniously put together from journals, letters and, latterly, faxes. Thomas and Rosalie can be said to have had good deaths. Thomas, perpetually terrified of dying, was granted a vision of the afterlife that allowed him to cast away his fear. Rosalie was happy to be nursed out of the world by the child whose beauty had so often incensed her.

Julia Blackburn has revisited the melodramatic hell her mother and father created, and has found it an all too recognisably human place.