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The Three of UsReview - The Three of Us
A Family Story
by Julia Blackburn
Vintage, 2008
Review by Helen Mawby, Ph.D.
Nov 10th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 46)

The Three of Us is the story of Julia Blackburn, her mother and first her father and then a series of other men, usually her mother's lodger. It is separated into episodic chapters which recount events of consequence throughout her life. Her father, Thomas Blackburn, was professionally a poet and domestically a violent alcoholic and drug addict. His saving grace was that he was a loving father and that the only time he ever hit his daughter was when he missed his wife. His terrible upbringing at the hands of his apparently upright parents, a vicar and his wife, is briefly and horrifically described in a chapter relating a family visit at Christmas. Blackburn tersely explains her grandfather wiping her father's skin as a child with a mixture of bleach and lemon juice because he was deemed 'too dark', and the mental contraption her father was forced to wear to prevent him having wet dreams. The fact that her straightforward and bald prose never becomes bleak is a testament to her ability to recount such episodes in her memory without passing judgment.

Blackburn's mother, Rosalie, was equally ill-favored when it came to parents. The younger of two daughters, she was encouraged to physically fight her sister by their father, who stood on the side lines shouting encouragement to Rosalie's older sister. Blackburn states that when her mother was little she was 'told she was a coward and a cry-baby, and as she got bigger she was told she was fat and stupid' by her father, and was unsupported and unloved by her mother. She does not seem to offer this information as an excuse for her mother's inability to be the mother she would have wished for, but simply as an explanation. It is the relationship between Blackburn and her mother that really takes centre stage in her autobiography, and it is this relationship that in the end provides the book with the poignant conclusion.

Throughout the book each chapter is finished with a section from a fax Blackburn sends to a friend who she later marries, who she initially met when he lodged with her mother. In these short closing sections we hear about the decline and ultimately the death of her mother from leukemia. In these brief closing sections Blackburn, as always succinctly, describes her mother's awakening to the relationship she could have had with her daughter and they are finally able to come together as mother and daughter without jealousy or anger. The terseness of Blackburn's prose and some of the content included does at times make the autobiography seem like it was overly gratuitous and intended to shock the reader, rather than provide the kind of personal illumination that some memoirs aim for. However, the content is always interesting, and the sections retelling the history of Blackburn's father and mother and their family are consistently affecting.  

 

© 2009 Helen Mawby

 

Helen Mawby, Ph.D., Ticehurst, Wadhurst, East Sussex, UK


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