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The line between fiction and autobiography is, at best, a blurred line. Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Prize, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood: A Memoir is a rare, rueful, troubling masterpiece.

Written by a new university academic, set mainly in Wales and featuring a philandering vicar, this autobiography exercised a unique attraction. Certainly, I didn’t need to be persuaded by others to turn its pages!

Over the years, I’ve often mused on Sage’s unique achievement. Yes, this memoir is extremely personal and limited, but, at the same time, carries universal significance in its unflinching observation of the trials of childhood and the burdens of adulthood.

Sage died in 2001 at the not-so-grand age of 57. That fact alone needs to be carefully witnessed and rightly mourned. Ostensibly, the memoir is both ‘quirky’ and ‘dark’. Frances Wilson’s excellent review of
Bad Blood in The Guardian hits the nail on the head:

“In a sense this is what autobiography is about: the ways in which your own story is not really yours at all, but a version of the tale of your parents or grandparents. These are the ways in which you become, as [Carolyn] Steedman puts it, "not quite yourself, but someone else", and this is what makes it such a dissatisfying genre for those wanting a reassuring or comfortable description of the growth of an individual mind.”

Wow! (And again ‘Wow!’, plus a few, faint claps for the recursive, ‘psychedelic’ thing!)

Put crudely, Sage’s ‘memoir’ is, at the most basic level, merely “an account of the events of her childhood and coming of age in Hanmer, Wales, and later in Whitchurch, England (about six miles apart) during the years following World War II” (Marylee Bradley) but this desiccated husk of information cannot convey the scalpel precision with which Sage opens up and lays bear the frailties and fault lines of her family, nor that germinal candour which lies at the heart of all great autobiography.

Sage was wonderful blessed by an exceptional knowingness, one which was able to navigate simultaneously, if not easefully, the complex tides of conservatism, modernism and post-modernism.

A triumph? You got it in one!


Book of the Month

Lorna Sage