At the end of Virginia Woolf’s brilliant 1927 novel “To the Lighthouse,” 16-year-old Cam Ramsay returns to her family’s summer home in the Hebrides 10 years after her beloved mother’s death. Juxtaposing the lighthouse she sees there with the lighthouses of his memory and imagination, she realizes that “nothing was simply one thing.”
In “All the Lives We Ever Lived,” Katharine Smyth’s powerful memoir about her father’s death, she takes a parallel journey. Closing up the family summer home in Rhode Island she “feel[s] the years piling atop one another … returned to all that came before.” Memory both exposes and defies the relentlessness of time, while imagination allows the artist to sketch, frame and perpetually reframe images that are never “simply one thing.”
Like Woolf’s novel, Smyth’s memoir imagistically flows across time and space: She is 11, hearing her father’s first diagnosis of cancer; she is a junior in college, reading “To the Lighthouse” for the first time; she is reliving in grim and tender detail the 13 years of her father’s slow death from cancer, and her idyllic/horrific only-childhood of growing up “the daughter of a god” who transforms into a “brutish stranger” when brought down by alcohol and depression.
Throughout it all, Smyth is reading and rereading “To the Lighthouse,” her own ever-changing beacon as both daughter and artist. What sets “All the Lives” apart from other memoirs about grief or alcoholism (and it has much to say about both topics) is that it is also a book about reading, the ways “the one book for every life” can, in Smyth’s words, “reciprocate and even alter [our] experience, while also giving [us] a vocabulary by which to fathom that experience.”
A literary critic might challenge Smyth’s equation of her father’s career failures and those of Mr. Ramsay in Woolf’s novel; her parents’ unhappy marriage with the complex bond between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay; her transposition of a novel centered on a mother into her father-centric obsessions. But that’s not the point; “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is about what “To the Lighthouse” means to one reader, a meaning with its own truths.
Like many ardent acolytes, Smyth’s worship of her literary idol can at times lead to cringeworthy stylistic homage (“her father’s healthy body in the raven sea, carrying with it a fragile lavender halo”). But there are many lovely moments when Smyth’s prose soars into poetry, as in her final paragraph, the rich description of a final walk she takes with her father by a rusty railway bridge, “as we watched a haze of orange dust … ascending higher and higher before floating away to nothing against the deep blue air.”
Diana Postlethwaite is a book reviewer who lives in Northfield.
All the Lives We Ever Lived
By: Katharine Smyth.
Publisher: Crown, 308 pages, $26.