Changeling: a Memoir of Parents Lost and Found

At last, summer is here, bringing with it a fresh crop of juicy misery memoirs with which to while away those sunny afternoons and long holiday flights. We've come a long way since the glorified kiddie torture-porn of A Child Called "It" and Ugly, gruesome show-and-tell-and-tell-some-more giving way to a far more subtle rendering of personal tragedy.

Among the current batch, Leslie Kenton, daughter of the jazz musician Stan Kenton, describes her childhood sexual relationship with her father (more consensual than most) in Love Affair; Bill Clegg, literary agent-turned-crackhead-turned-author, elegantly expounds on his unusual career arc in Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man; and Sandra Newman, author of two acclaimed novels and a gleefully scornful guide to novel-writing, recollects a youth so troubled that the cover of her book features the mock-horror endorsement, "Even if you were brought up by wolves, Changeling will make you think you had a sheltered life". What a selling point.

It's true, though: Newman does have a broader range of dark experiences to draw on than most. Adopted as a baby, she grows up with parents who are "the stock nice Jewish couple, middle class, with a house in Massachusetts and a backyard and an upstairs". In the midst of this average American dream, hyper-imaginative Sandra is a lonely misfit - though clearly not the only one. Her adoptive mother eventually succeeds in killing herself at the fifth attempt.

As an adult, Newman meets her real parents and realises just how much her youthful unhappiness was about not fitting in. She feels an almost instant affinity for her real mother - intelligent, awkward and a fellow Russian graduate. Her real father, who tracks her down, is an experimental fiction writer. (Newman's own novels, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done and Cake, are littered with formal games - as is Changeling - and have led to comparisons of Newman with Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Eggers.)

After years believing herself to be sui generis, she discovers that "you are not you, you are a fragment of the generations that hold you in their web". It is an experience as troubling for her as much of what comes earlier, and certainly does not lead to a happy ending. But soon afterwards, she begins her writing career "in palsied fits and starts", a process that she describes with malevolent wit. "Every person approaching a writing workshop has a secret expectation that her work will defy criticism. Her book is already a masterpiece, and she will instantly be hailed as a rising star." As the reader anticipates Newman's ignominious collapse back into tragedy, she butts in - "That is what happened to me" - and describes her instant success. Changeling is so inventive and well written that it's easy to believe her.

The happy ending ends before the book does, but before that unravelling come the years prior to her meeting with her real parents. In an interview, Newman once described this period as "too violent a reaction to growing up in suburban Massachusetts"; in the book, she decides to "let go and blame nothing. Nothing human could be alien."

In the 1980s, moving to London on a whim at 17, she promptly runs out of money and endures several months as a prostitute rather than admit to her father that she has "thrown his money away on a poodle, a vintage car and an Italian con artist". She becomes a student and then a squatter, sleeps around, suffers a rape. Her relationships are "love brawls" with difficult men and ex-drug addicts. Her dead-end jobs include professional gambling and tedious temping.

This minefield of a life is written fitfully, subheadings and bullet points breaking up Newman's lolloping, rhythmic prose. There is humour, though never any less bleak than the description of the alcoholic best friend who "prides himself on vomiting from his bicycle without slowing". And despite the grimness, there is restraint: Newman avoids larding with description and lets events speak for themselves. In any case, it's the way each incident flows untidily into the next that says most about Newman; the way she turns up to meet her rapist for breakfast the day after she is attacked, because he had "offered to get me work as a heroin courier, to make it up to me".

So, as misery memoirs go, Changeling is a cut above. Yet it is difficult to read it without feeling that Newman's literary talents could be put to better use in fiction. Her writing reads as if she is frustrated by the limits of language, and it is a shame to see her imagination constrained by the facts (admittedly not a problem faced by all memoirists, but Newman's story does ring true).

Nonetheless, Changeling signposts those elements of Newman's novels which have leaked out of her life story. Perhaps, by setting down her own tale, she will have flushed out the pipework and made space for more - and even more imaginative - fiction.

Changeling: a Memoir of Parents Lost and Found
Sandra Newman
Chatto & Windus, 224pp, £12.99

Alyssa McDonald is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals