Lily Tuck's remarkable autobiographical coming-of-age novel opens with the author, Liliane, heading alone from New York to Rome to visit her father, Rudy, an acclaimed movie producer. It's shortly after World War II, and she's about 10 years old. That's a big deal for any kid, but Tuck starts off suggesting it's a psychologically fraught experience: It's when "Liliane's double life begins."
How so? Tuck delays answering that question directly, but it's soon clear she's concerned with the forces in our past that are out of our control but define us anyway. Liliane's father was a German Jew who barely escaped the camps; her mother, Irene, was a German model who also escaped as the war began. They were a profound influence, but Liliane fights for every scrap of parental data. The novel is peppered with family photos, as if to fill in the gaps.
"While Liliane is growing up, no one mentions Judaism," Tuck writes. "No one talks about being Jewish."
Much of the novel is conveyed in that flat, just-the-facts style. That's partly a product of Tuck's early tutelage under minimalist standard-bearer Gordon Lish. But the style also underscores Tuck's strategy to explore how unvarnished detail makes up a person. There are not a lot of radiant emotions in "The Double Life of Liliane," or sinuous sentences relating them. But the details Liliane gathers from pestering relatives and from her own experiences make an impression.
And even plain-spoken, those experiences are interesting. Rudy was a friend of dancer Josephine Baker and a host of characters in Italy's vibrant film scene; her stepfather, Gaby, was a lieutenant in the Navy during the war and survived a sinking; visiting her mother's sisters takes her to Peru and Tanzania. Eighteenth-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and Mary, Queen of Scots were relatives.
Closer to home, by Liliane's teenage years she learns her parents have secret lives, particularly sexual ones. Discovering a copy of the erotic classic "The Story of O" while snooping in her father's office is a revelation — the book is evidence of private life conveyed in writing, and Liliane dreams of being a writer.
Sexual awakening is a substantial part of the closing chapters, as Liliane deals with college, boyfriends and a sexual assault. The double life of the novel's title, though, goes further, touching on faith, family and how much we manipulate our pasts when we start writing it down.
She quotes her professor Paul de Man saying that autobiography is "an act of self-restoration." In its restrained, patient way, Tuck's novel successfully creates a whole person, even if she knows that creation is inevitably a fiction.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.