Ghost Songs: A Memoir
By Regina McBride
Tin House Books — October 2016
ISBN 9781941040430 — 350 Pages – Paperback
One dividend that comes from reviewing a wide spectrum of books (particularly when starting out) is that occasionally I discover a completely unexpected positive experience. Case in point: Tin House
sends out a general call for interested readers in advanced review copies. I respond, with no particular idea of what they will send. But reading their literary journal regularly, I know to at least expect quality, whatever it may be. It’s what I precisely like about them, they publish a wide range of content, not eschewing genre, so long as it’s good.
And in my mail arrives Ghost Songs: A Memoir by Regina McBride. I think I audibly sighed in disappointment. Of all the possibilities, I got one of the few kinds of literary works that I didn’t think I could appreciate much, even if done exceptionally well. I appreciate history and biography. My skepticism rises a bit if it’s an autobiography. But memoir? I actually don’t know as I’ve ever before read anything that qualifies as memoir. It has always seemed suspect to me — too loose in its organization, style, and possibly even facts. I didn’t know a single thing about the author, so I looked in hopes that perhaps the topics/themes would be something familiarly enticing. But I saw things like: Ireland, poetry, mental health… sigh. Most of the description left me indifferent, but poetry — I rarely seem to feel emotional connection or resonance with poetry.
Nevertheless, I picked this memoir up and began reading, convincing myself that at the very least I would have a new experience, a chance to learn and momentarily extend my zone of reading comfort. Against all my intuition, I rapidly became engrossed in McBride’s beautiful, reflective writing, in a world of unfamiliar thoughts and experiences far from the focus of my typical reading. The cover blurb by Alice Sebold is definitely hyperbole. But the sentiment is precisely accurate. In Ghost Songs McBride weaves a tapestry of family, individuality, culture, and grief with a melancholy, fragile prose. Organized frequently as short paragraphs, her phrases echo the flow and tide of memory, driven by association and sense rather than time.
The memoir begins with an eighteen-year-old McBride, talking to a psychologist about the ghosts that haunt her, the uncertainty of who she is, and the weight of genetics and experience that define her. McBride’s parents both died by their own hands, suicides separated by a mere five months, mother following father. Coming from a culture of strict Irish Catholicism, the McBrides all share common pressures of guilt, depression, and a frequent struggle to continue on. Regarding the moment after her father’s suicide McBride writes:
“I sit on the floor of my old bedroom, listening to my mother on the phone in her room making funeral arrangements. My father has done something irreparable. There is a new trajectory in place. Every cell and every particle around me knows how things will end. Every bright dust mote rushing through the sunlight and disappearing in shadow rings with inevitability. The house, the furniture, the trees, my brother and my sisters, even my mother — we all know, but it is not possible to accept this and keep going.” — (p. 90).
The mention of ‘every cell and every particle’ in this quote bears specific mention. One of the recurring themes in Ghost Songs that did resonate with me (because of my science background surely) is McBride’s use of the molecular — in some instances more precisely quantum — as metaphor. In spots, the concept is utilized for viewing events as composed of an infinite number of smaller moments, paring down burdensome trials into short, bearable units. Even if tragedy makes this hard to achieve.
“…‘When you work on a play, you have to look at the dramatic arc. You break it down into manageable parts, into beats. See how every event leads to the next.’
…But it is as though each death were an explosion that erased the connections between things. In my mind a fizzing whiteness hovers, particles refusing to settle.” — (p. 85).
Yet it is poetry that seems to be the most effective means of coping that McBride can utilize to find comfort and feel peace from the ghosts of her past. Given her Irish heritage this comes particularly from the poetry of Yeats and the mythology of her homeland. Ghost Songs culminates with McBride’s pilgrimage to Ireland and the self discoveries she makes there while searching for a personal Tír na nÓg. In poetic irony, this comfort ultimately comes from the same source as all of her pain: genetic and cultural inheritance, with her father’s appreciation of poetry. Recalling a moment with him, McBride describes a mosquito landing on her father and his allowing it to bite him. McBride then crushes it and her father comments:
“Some of that is your blood” — (p. 232).
He then references The Flea
, a poem by John Donne. McBride relates:
“I tremble with hopefulness, the lines suggesting a closeness between the poem and the person being addressed. A poem might help heal the rift between us.” — (p. 232).
I don’t think I ever completely emotionally connected to elements of Ghost Songs as many readers might. Those with a fascination/experience with Irish American culture, with Yeats, or those who suffer from depression or other related issues might find the memoir strongly resonant. Nevertheless, I could see, feel, and believe the emotional effects these elements have on McBride. I won’t be chasing after more memoirs to read, but I’m certainly more open to trying them than I was previously, and I’m reminded of how beneficial it can be to just give something a try, no matter the preconceived notions. I will certainly recognize the name Regina McBride when I see it again, and I will gladly dig into the writing it appears above. As long as it’s not poetry. Well, maybe even then.
“A particular memory preoccupies me… My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.” — (pp. 3 – 4).
“I sit up in the darkness in my room in Dublin and cry because I miss my mother. I cry because my mother died without a face.” — (p. 290).
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.