from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Kintsugi’ by Marie O’Rourke

O’Rourke, Marie. Kintsugi. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2024. RRP: $29.99, 256pp, ISBN 9781760992644.

Gemma Nisbet

Readers are advised that the following review contains descriptions of domestic violence.

‘Remembering’, wrote the influential memory researcher Ulric Neisser, ‘is a kind of doing’. The idea is that our memories are not facsimiles of experience, to be neatly filed away in the cabinets of our minds and retrieved, wholly intact, at will. Instead, they are ‘constructions rather than copies’ (204): stories about particular life events that we remake each time we recall them, with reference not only to our subjective understanding of what happened, but also the ways we have remembered them previously, and the demands of the current moment.

It is this (now widely accepted) view of memory as something more verb than noun that animates Marie O’Rourke’s first book, Kintsugi. Over the course of sixteen formally varied and often powerfully vulnerable personal essays, O’Rourke—who wrote the Hungerford Award-shortlisted manuscript as part of her Creative Writing PhD thesis at Curtin University—reflects on some of the pivotal events of her own life, the changing ways she has remembered them, and how this has informed her similarly fluid sense of self. As she does so, she asks questions that are, perhaps, intrinsic to life writing as a genre: how to tell the story of a life? How to tell stories of the past? And, how to do so in ways that reflect our ever-evolving orientation towards the events of our own lives, taking in the complexity, dynamism and even trickery of the manner in which we remember and forget our experiences?

The knotty interrelation between memory and self-identity is foregrounded early on in Kintsugi, as is the importance of writing (and reading) as a tool for making sense of it all. As O’Rourke suggests in her introduction: ‘In the face of experience that threatens to obliterate, we can only work, slowly, through those rituals of piecing a self together. These repairs, Kate Zambreno says, can come through writing, as a way of “stitching back former selves, sentences”’ (9). This piecing together is the central narrative motor of the collection. That the personal essay—with all its potentials for hybridity, fragmentation and relational thinking—is O’Rourke’s chosen mode is indicative of how the book understands this task: as something necessarily ongoing, non-linear and never-complete, in which the asking of questions is as important as the answering of them. Across the course of the essays, this patchworking of the ‘jumble of scraps and memories’ that is a life (106) is both underscored by and gives rise to a self that is similarly fragmentary and relational.

In Kintsugi, O’Rourke illustrates some of the overlapping facets of her identity, and is alert to the particular demands many of these roles demand from women. She depicts herself as a daughter, a young wife, and a mother and meticulous homemaker, as well as a reader, a partner finding her way in new romantic relationships post-divorce, a grieving sister, and as a writer ‘laying both heart and head on the page’ (25). The essays, both individually and as a collection, thus become a kind of container to hold at-times conflicting identities. The titular metaphor of kintsugi—the Japanese artform of ‘fixing broken pottery with seams of gold lacquer to draw attention to flaws you might normally hide’ (236)—suggests the way O’Rourke forges a sense of self that holds space for complexity and even contradiction without needing to resolve  either.

This potential to embrace nuance is another affordance of the essay form, and is especially evident in O’Rourke’s writing about her late father, whose volatility and violence cast a long shadow over renderings of her childhood. For much of the collection, she is fairly circumspect when it comes to specifics on this subject, and notes more generally on a desire to hold certain cards close: ‘that you have these words in front of you now is a small miracle, because, Lord knows, I don’t give up my grip on things easily’ (17). Yet there’s also a keen understanding of the way autobiographical writing can seem to demand self-revelation on the part of the author. O’Rourke addresses all of this most directly in the essay, ‘Chiaroscuro #1’:

We need to see the dark, you say. Need to feel it. To know. Ambiguity, allusion, elision be damned: a reader needs something to latch onto every now and then; some straight words. I won’t (I can’t) supply numbers, mind. They’re not my thing. Besides, nowhere did I scratch on a wall, a doorframe, or in any of my childish notepads or diaries, a tally of his offences, a ranking of their gravity. How did you hurt me? Let me count the ways… (165)

The inherent partiality of representation, and of words, is one factor here; O’Rourke wonders ‘how can words on a page truly capture the thump of a mother’s body from bed to floor, dragged by her hair that morning?’ (167). Another is the workings of memory, and particularly the fact that, as archaeologist Carl Knappett has put it, ‘the past can only be known to us in the present through a series of traces that have been worked on over time’ (38). Thus, O’Rourke writes, she can only bring us such stories from the perspective of a person who has lived through the intervening decades, and the changes this stretch of time brought about in her relationship with her father, particularly after he became terminally ill:

The problem is, I can’t see those long-gone memories of my snarling father without also seeing the shrunken form in that hospital bed thirty years later, the man who held my hand as his breath gently puffed and huffed with effort yet no complaint. I’m doing my best to bring you close to the dark that was my father, but, inevitably, it’s all being muddied by the final visions which overlay it all. (176–177)

However, even as O’Rourke acknowledges the inadequacy of words to capture experience, she is attuned to their power, especially in terms of how they allow her to inscribe a diffuse sense of self onto the page as she endeavours to write down ‘all that has been spooling, tangling, knotting inside me for years’ (25). O’Rourke is keenly aware that the memory acts intrinsic to autobiographical writing produce a portrait of a past and a life that is innately contingent, mutable and incomplete. But Kintsugi also illustrates the ways these acts of memory might allow us to make something that is beautiful, curious-minded and tender from what is broken, imperfect or unsure—that is, to make something from the stuff of real life.

Works Cited

Knappett, Carl. ‘Imprints as Punctuations of Material Itineraries’ in Hans Peter Hahn and Hadas Weiss (eds) in Mobility, Meaning and Transformations of Things: shifting contexts of material culture through time and space. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. 37–49.

Neisser, Ulric. ‘Remembering as Doing’ in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 19 (1996): 203–204.

Gemma Nisbet is a Western Australian writer, living and working on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja. A former travel journalist, she has a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia, and teaches Creative Writing and Literary Studies at universities. A former journalist for The West Australian, her work has also appeared in Australian Book Review, Axon, Text and Westerly, among others. Her first book, The Things We Live With: Essays on Uncertainty, was published in October by Upswell.

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