Saturday 29 April 2017

A love story struck down in full bloom

Memoir: It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too), Nora McInerny Purmort, Piatkus, pbk, 288 pages, €23.70

Powerful narrator: Nora McInerny Purmort lost her husband to cancer.
Powerful narrator: Nora McInerny Purmort lost her husband to cancer.
It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort

By anyone's standards, Nora McInerny Purmort had an especially difficult 2014. By then in her early 30s, the Minneapolis writer lost her father - a Vietnam vet - and husband Aaron - aged 35 - to cancer in the space of a couple of months. Add the birth of her son Ralph (and later, a miscarriage) into the mix, and McInerny Purmort has plenty to say.

Even without this mill grist to hand, she has a deft, wry writing style. Above all else, McInerny Purmort vows to be open, honest and confessional.

"Sometimes I will be small and mean and ugly and jealous," she writes. "I will do anything to avoid being lonely. I will judge other people, and find myself doing nearly all those things I judged them for." Such revelations are there ostensibly to build an intimacy with the reader.

This book, born out of a hugely popular blog entitled My Husband's Tumour, is a scattergun retelling of Nora's first 32 years. The reader is catapulted from childhood vignette to Aaron's hospice bed, from first boyfriends to the long goodbye with her father, making for a chaotic narrative.

By her own admission, McInerny Purmort had an average upbringing, an unremarkable career climb and the anxieties of most twentysomethings. And then a man, Aaron, made hers a life less ordinary for a thousand reasons.

McInerny Purmort has a knack for recalling the grim minutiae of grief and anticipatory loss: sitting with a friend and bursting into tears because her friend is alive and her husband will never be; weeping when her husband tells her a vignette from his childhood because she worries she will never know all of him, and that even in his final months, he is revealing himself to her anew.

Anyone who has experienced loss, death or tragedy will warm to this: the small shards of torture to be found in the everyday. It's Okay to Laugh isn't a common-or-garden misery memoir, however: above all, it's a simple love story, albeit one that was struck down in full bloom.

Yet something tricky is afoot. In literary terms, the 'generation confession' market is in rude health; some might say it's full to bursting. Bookshelves are saturated with writers - especially female writers - entangled in personal tragedies, making them digestible for a new generation of readers.

Not many of them have the singular literary voices of the genre's forebears, like Cheryl Strayed, Nora Ephron or Joan Didion. Didion had an eye for the beauty in quotidian life; Ephron an ear for unspeakable truths. Strayed, meanwhile, crafted mealy, rich prose; the type that readers could swill in their mouths and drink in to feel fed and sated. Yet with the likes of Lena Dunham, Jenny Lawson, Tig Notaro, Elizabeth Gilbert and Jean Thompson also gunning for elbowroom in the arena, it's becoming increasingly hard to stand out amid the pack.

There's an honesty and refreshing backbone of gallows humour to McInerny Purmort's writing. Yet passages like, "I'd tell you that I moved to New York because I had always dreamed of living there, that I was going to get a job working at a magazine and live in a stylish apartment and try my hardest to make sure a handsome single ad exec didn't fall in love with me. 'Wait,' you'd say, 'isn't that the plot of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?'" are a little careworn, and certainly more than familiar to the genre's zealots.

Still, McInerny Purmort makes for a powerful narrator and an amiable companion.

It's Okay to Laugh is an easy read that can be swallowed in two or three delicious bites… albeit one that's not without its genuinely beautiful moments.

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