Saturday 20 January 2018

Books: She's leaving home . . .

Holding back? Sarah Maria Griffin at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Alan Leggit
Holding back? Sarah Maria Griffin at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Alan Leggit
Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home

Edel Coffey

Against the backdrop of our recent economic Armageddon, emigration has emerged as the leitmotif of the twenty-something generation. We've seen our history of emigration unfurl like a Russian doll, each new economic cycle forcing fresh generations to seek a life abroad.

Sarah Maria Griffin is one of the new batch of twenty-something Irish émigrés. The first time most people encountered her work was probably when she wrote a front-page newspaper article about her experience of homesickness abroad. She was just 24 then but had already published Follies, her first collection of poetry.

Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home is Griffin's memoir of her first year abroad, in San Francisco. Griffin's story is a little different to the sad tales of emigration that we know so well, as she and her partner, referred to in this book as CB, were not forced to leave but decided to do so when his company offered him a job in Silicon Valley. That's not to say that Griffin's experience will not connect with all sorts of émigrés. It is a familiar story of both homesickness and of growing up.

She neatly charts her story over the course of a year, taking in the desolate homesickness of the first few weeks, the disheartening search for employment, the burgeoning depression caused by unemployment and hard coming-of-age experiences, like an unwelcome sexual advance from an older man. Her description of this man's 'hand creep' across the table gloriously sums up her horror at the situation. It is for these kinds of descriptive gems that Sarah Maria Griffin is already a name to watch.

Life in San Francisco is different to how she imagined it would be. Instead of becoming a hipster blogger who owns ceramic owls and handmade jewellery and somehow survives on no money at all, she is lonely and lost, with only a kitten and her howling homesickness for company during the long hours when her boyfriend is at work.

Underneath the entertaining stories is a thoughtful young woman trying to make sense of her place in the world, grappling with her ambition and trying to turn it into success, and struggling to assert her individuality in a world of conformity. She writes about her forays into the local literary world of poetry slams and readings, her unconventional wedding proposal to her boyfriend, their marriage in Disneyland and her efforts to quell her inner Bridezilla. She covers body issues and the dual identity that comes with living abroad. All of these things will strike a chord with young women trying to make their way in the world.

Structurally, the book flows well for the most part, and she keeps a strict eye on the passing of time and the narrative arc but, at times, some of the chapters feel like standalone essays that have been stitched into the book, like the chapter written in the form of a letter to a recruiter, or the word-association game that makes up the chapter about her first Christmas back at home. Even so, Griffin's writing never ceases to be compelling.

This is an important book because, along with writers like Elske Rahill, Griffin is giving us first-hand insights into the Irish boom-bust twenty-something generation, insights that are otherwise thin on the ground. She writes about wanting more girls her age to write, so that they have contemporary books to relate to. Griffin's book will surely inspire more girls to follow in her footsteps. She certainly fits into, and holds her own among the global movement of young women writing about their own lives. Women of all ages will love reading Griffin's story as, for many, her ambition, enthusiasm, naïveté, hunger for life and vivacity will sound an echo deep inside of a long-buried voice.

Griffin has a steady command of language and a brilliant way with metaphors and description. Her words fizz with emotion, luxuriate in perfecting a description, and frolic in the playful Dublinese that she adds to her patter.

As a first attempt at long-form writing, this book is as promising and exciting as any I've read by a young Irish writer. If there is a flaw, it is that she is still wearing the elusiveness of the poet like a protective cloak, and that can be frustrating in memoir. In an article Griffin wrote on about the process of writing stories based in reality, she compared it to pulling teeth:

"Every time I pulled out a tooth that was bloody and gorgeous and shining, it was too much of a precious thing to show other people in the pages of a book. I did a lot of planting teeth back in. I kept a lot of things for myself. There are many lost chapters of Not Lost."

The idea that the author is holding back is breaking the deal. Elusiveness has no place in memoir. It's the hangover of the poet's privilege. It just made me wonder, superb as this book is, how much better could it have been if she didn't hold back?

But don't let that stop you reading it. This book is a fascinating window into the experiences of the current wave of young Irish emigrants and the painful disconnect they feel, even in this Skype age.

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Irish Independent

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