GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a sophomore at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

For this review, Gayathri read the Wilton Library’s 2021 Wilton Reads program selection, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, a chronicle of the author’s life growing up as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, and how her life was impacted by her mother’s death during a horrific crime in 1985. Memorial Drive has garnered awards and accolades including becoming a New York Times Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Top 10 Best Book of 2020, an NPR Best Book of 2020, a Slate Best Book of 2020, a USA Today Best Book of 2020, and an Amazon Best Book of 2020. 

Wilton Library hosts Trethewey at a virtual author talk in conversation with Wilton resident and former Wilton Magazine editor Megan Smith-Harris this Thursday, April 15 at 6 p.m. Registration is required to receive the livestream link.

As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir begins at that metaphorical river, with author Natasha Trethewey returning to Atlanta 30 years after her mother’s death, and reopening a chapter of her life she could never fully close. She explains, “I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy.”

Memorial Drive is not simply a retelling of Trethewey’s life or the events leading up to her mother’s murder; Trethewey weaves in her own analysis and interpretation, enriching the narrative by exploring it both as a key character and an outside observer.

Though the prologue of the memoir begins at the scene of her mother’s death, Trethewey rewinds the story to her birth in 1966, on Confederate Memorial Day in Mississippi, noting the irony and paradoxical nature of that particular holiday. A similar juxtaposition occurs with her white father, who felt free and unbounded, and her black mother, who faced obstacles preventing her from achieving that same sense of recklessness. Trethewey describes this contrast as “my father believed in the idea of living dangerously, the necessity of taking risks, my mother had witnessed the necessity of dissembling, the art of making of one’s face an inscrutable mask before whites who expected of blacks a servile deference.” These two different worlds are reflected in Trethewey’s experiences, forcing her “to be alone in the journey toward an understanding of self.” It is this journey that we also get to embark on, with the added advantage of Trethewey’s hindsight and her evocative language.

Memorial Drive is particularly poignant because it embraces the power of memory and emotional truth, and the role it plays in loss and trauma. Though this memoir is written in prose, Trethewey, U.S Poet Laureate and author of the Pulitzer-winning poetry collection Native Guard, displays her expertise in expressive and figurative language. Trethewey not only incorporates metaphors but reflects on the role those metaphors play, writing, “What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives. Since that day decades ago, the imagery of the memory has remained the same, I think, because I have rehearsed it, telling the story of my near-drowning again and again. What has changed is how I’ve understood what I saw, how I’ve come to interpret the metaphors inherent in my way of recalling the events.”

She also weaves in allusions to Greek mythology, drawing a parallel between herself and the ancient prophet Cassandra, and examining the role “the stories of Narcissus, Icarus, Cassandra, the riddle of the Sphinx—stories about bravery, vanity, hubris, knowledge” played in her life.

While the language is gorgeous, Trethewey’s insight and perceptiveness are what make Memorial Drive a must-read. As she tackles issues like racism and domestic violence, her reflections on the nature of her memories elevate and enhance her descriptions. Her search for meaning in senseless violence is marked by an acute self-awareness, achieved by treating her life like a narrative. Even the events beyond her memory are recounted; though she cannot recall exactly what happened, she clarifies, “I heard the story again and again, and the night lives in my memory as experience. I see it as though watching a scene in a documentary,” even shifting to the second person several times to highlight the distance between her current self and the girl who experienced this loss.

Trethewey is also straightforward about why she wrote Memorial Drive, explaining that, “Scientists tell us there are different ways that the brain records and stores memory, that trauma is inscribed differently than other types of events. To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.” She ends this memoir by recognizing that, “It is the story I tell myself to survive.”

Reviewer’s Acknowledgment:  I am very thankful to the Wilton Reads program for recommending Memorial Drive and to the Wilton Library for providing me with a copy.