It’s the voyeur in me, maybe. Or the years spent as a newspaper reporter. But for whatever reason, I am fascinated by the lives of others. And you are, too, I bet. Memoir has been a popular genre for years — since “Angela’s Ashes”? Since “The Liar’s Club”? Since “The Confessions of St. Augustine”?
Here are three memoirs that have captivated me lately.
“Ghost Songs,” by Regina McBride. (Tin House, 297 pages, $15.95.)
This stark, graceful memoir opens in a psych ward where McBride has landed, at age 18, after a mental collapse. And no wonder — her father has committed suicide, her mother has committed suicide, and she is haunted by their ghosts. The ghosts are so real — they lie on her bed, they stand in the doorway, they follow her from place to place — that McBride is terrified. She shuts her eyes, refuses to look.
An Irish Catholic, she cannot fathom what her parents have done. “Suicide is the worst sin,” she tells the doctor. “That’s the one that can’t be forgiven.”
“Ghost Songs” follows her collapse and shaky rebirth. It is written not in chronological order but in brief, vivid fragments (a paragraph, a page) that bounce around in time, slowly revealing the tormented, the happy, the tragic.
Over time, McBride follows her demons to her parents’ native Ireland, where she begins to heal.
Like the writer’s troubled, doomed parents, this moody memoir will haunt you.
“The Unquiet Daughter,” by Danielle Flood. (Piscataqua Press, 374 pages, $19.95.)
Danielle Flood grew up with her glamorous, narcissistic mother, a French-Vietnamese woman named Suzy who immigrated to the United States when Flood was a baby. Suzy’s husband — who might have been a spy — came with them. But after a few years, he got into a car one day and drove off. It was years before Flood saw him again.
Suzy kept Flood as a near-slave; she was made to do all of the cooking, shopping and cleaning while Suzy slept late and made herself pretty. And then, when Flood reached adolescence, her mother threw her out of the house.
The book moves between 1970s New York, a boarding school in Dublin and Vietnam on the verge of war. The pacing is a bit uneven, with a breathless epilogue that races to tie up loose ends and explain complex relationships. The writing can be unpolished, the tone teetering on self-pity.
And yet the memoir is fascinating: exotic, atmospheric, jaw-dropping. Stripper Blaze Starr was Danielle’s babysitter. Graham Greene immortalized Suzy and her lovers in “The Quiet American.” That Danielle managed to extricate herself from a childhood of abuse and dysfunction is amazing.
“All at Sea,” by Decca Aitkenhead. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 225 pages, $25.)
This memoir is a love letter to Tony, the author’s partner, who drowned off a Jamaican beach while trying to rescue their young son from the waves. The first chapter of “All at Sea” recounts that drowning, and it is written in as heart-stopping prose as you are likely to read. The rest of the book, while poignant, cannot measure up.
The author is a British journalist; Tony was a dreadlocked drug dealer and crackhead who had charisma to spare. Their unlikely relationship started from passion and grew into something deep: Tony stopped using drugs and went to college; they had two children; they built a life.
His death is devastating, and the guilt that the author and her son experience is palpable. In the end, seeking closure, she and her sons return to Jamaica, and she visits the beach where the unthinkable happened.
“I do not cry or come undone,” she writes. “I feel quite calm. I feel closer to Tony here, where he drew his last breath, than I have at any moment since he died.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks