Memoir: To Throw Away Unopened, Viv Albertine, Faber & Faber, €18.20
A moment at the beginning of Viv Albertine's memoir captures her approach to the world. Her seven-year-old daughter is running down the stairs at her grandmother's flat when a neighbour, a young man in his 30s, pokes his head out the door to complain. He asks Albertine her name. She leans forward and whispers, "My name is… Mrs… Bollocks," but clarifies, "You can call me Mrs Fuck Bollocks if you like."
Viv Albertine was a guitarist in the all-girl punk-reggae band The Slits. Her first memoir - Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. - took readers through the world of punk she had inhabited as a young girl and won a clutch of awards when it came out in 2014.
It detailed the numerous hurdles Albertine overcame to make her music, but also delved into her fertility problems, cancer and subsequent divorce. It was a dirty, angry book, showing a woman taking the world of punk by storm and later tackling marriage and middle-aged dating with equal bravery.
To Throw Away Unopened pushes boundaries even further and may simply be the fiercest, angriest book you'll ever read. It embodies a form of feminism that is as provocative as punk. There are no sacred cows in Albertine's writing, no characters so beloved their motives cannot be questioned. Albertine's mother ("Mum") was a revered figure in her first memoir but in her second, Albertine takes her apart brutally before stitching her back imperfectly together again.
This unfailing honesty applies to her own motives too. "Lots of little things I did wrong when Vida was young still haunt me," she says of her relationship with her daughter. After her parents' deaths, Albertine found both their diaries. Her father's surfaced in the small apartment in France where he lived. Her mother's lay in her London council flat in London, starkly marked, "To Throw Away - UNOPENED."
Albertine reads them both - of course - and publishes sections of them here. Her father paints a picture of a sad and isolated life, with a wife who hated him and turned his children against him. He recounts how Albertine's mother gave her daughter barbiturates to stave off screaming fits - high dependency drugs which, Viv realises, probably caused her to fail her 11-plus exams. For her part, Albertine's mother describes rape and violence at the hands of her husband and implies that he would have molested his daughters if he'd had the opportunity.
Albertine is skilled at surprising her readers, toying with our sympathies and putting us in the position she was in when she first encountered her parents' notebooks. At once, we see her father's side, that of a lonely middle-aged man, whose wife turned his children against him. But whose is right, his version or his wife's? The question is definitively answered as To Throw Away Unopened proceeds.
Anger infuses Albertine's writing against a society that makes it hard for female artists to thrive, a world in which both she and her mother have struggled. Since her days in The Slits Albertine has battled against male oppression, both symbolic and actual.
When she was young, men threatened to hurt her as she walked down the street. Now, she writes, "I see male dominance everywhere. Some nights I can't bear one more male face on the TV."
Albertine's writing is lucid and sharp, full of wry perceptions. She observes for instance that, "Life in the 'advanced economies' is so much about acquiring and achieving, succeeding and being busy and popular, even when you're older. And then you die."
To Throw Away Unopened is a book about contested narratives - sibling against sibling, a mother's word against a father's, and feminist aspirations checked by masculine dominance. Can we believe Albertine herself? I hope so.