I married a communist

How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories

Dorothy Gallagher<em> Picador, 208pp, £12.99

The inheritance of Dorothy Gallagher's title is that of New York blue-collar communism during the 1950s. It is also the fate of being born the only child of two parents who are as mad as hatters, and bitter with it. Out of this bleak start - all peeled wallpaper, denied desire and fitful sulking - Gallagher has crafted an impressive episodic memoir of her early life and times.

Gallagher, who is now in her sixties, gradually unfolds the story of her parents, who left Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century, on the run from Cossacks and likely lifelong poverty. Fetching up in Brooklyn, Isidore and Bella Rosenbloom work hard to achieve a standard of living well above subsistence (he pumps gas, she sews, they both save hard) and dedicate themselves to "The Cause".

The Cause is communism, in particular the brand that Stalin is peddling in the Old Country (Trotsky is by now the enemy, a name to be whispered in the same hateful breath as "reactionary" and "class enemy" during those endless campaign meetings held in other people's cold-water kitchens). Played out in the context of America, this absolute faith in "the working people" requires the Rosens, as they have become, to hold themselves fastidiously aloof from postwar bourgeois pleasures. Chatty telephone calls, pretty frocks and tribal playground teasing are all forbidden to the adolescent Dorothy. Instead, she is required to hand out leaflets to stony passers-by, and to try at all times to remember the poor people of China.

Gallagher does not tell her story in linear form. (Despite telling us about two early failed marriages, she never explains exactly how she came by this surname.) We start in the present, with her parents decaying and impossible in a falling-down house in upstate New York. From there, we move backwards and forwards, and sideways, too. There are stories from Brailov, the Ukrainian town from which her mother came, where a girl with thick plaits runs away with the local schoolteacher, and where an 11-year-old boy is put to work in a flour store. Gallagher follows her people as they arrive in America, not so much in search of a dream as on the run from a nightmare. Over the following decades, businesses falter and marriages sour. Old quarrels and rivalries that were born in Brailov lurch to their bitter endgames in small, grimy apartments in Philadelphia, Miami and the Bronx.

Standing by, listening and looking closely, is the growing Dorothy. A watchful child, she does not have to pump her parents for details about what is going on. Instead, the stories come pouring out: for example, of the unfortunate Aunt Lily, an ageing spinster who runs away to the Midwest with a man called Tom and has to come back by train - a good thing, Dorothy's mother says, because Lily was always a terrible driver. Sally is the pushy "American girl" who marries Uncle Oscar and demands, of all things, an engagement ring (these expensive indulgences do not sit well with a family that is supposed to have its mind fixed permanently on The Cause). And Dorothy's mother, Bella, reaches a kind of fulfilment when she enrols in a typing course at the "Y" and finds, in the relentless order of the keys, something approaching consolation for the violent death of her much-loved sister.

Gallagher tells her story in a pared-down prose that still has room for the cadences of all those aunts, uncles and second cousins for whom English is a second or even third language. In this, she sometimes sounds like Grace Paley, that other great miniaturist of New York Jewish life, or even Woody Allen, in one of those scenes where he flashes back to a noisy family supper table in 1940s Brooklyn. Just occasionally, Gallagher's direct, buttonholing style grates. But this is a rare, rich book which demonstrates that the distinguished tradition of American autobiography is far from played out. Indeed, books as good as How I Came Into My Inheritance provide the best argument for regarding the memoir as a permanent and vital strand in contemporary literary writing.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress