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Leslie Jamison’s Splinters captures the paradoxes of motherhood

This intimate memoir explores the contradictions of being a parent, a partner and an artist – singly, and all at once.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Leslie Jamison gives this advice to her non-fiction writing students: “You have to dislodge the cocktail-party version of the story in order to get at the more complicated version lurking beneath the anecdote.” She doesn’t want their break-ups “summarised”. She wants to read about them “stress-eating cookies as big as their palms, their fingers smelling like iron after leaning against an ex’s rusty fire escape”.

Reading Splinters, it is clear that Jamison follows her own rules. While the American author’s previous books – which include The Empathy Exams, an essay collection on the theme of understanding, and The Recovering, an autobiographical study of alcoholism – blended life-writing and criticism, this is her first memoir proper. The book details her experience of caring for her young daughter following her separation from her husband. But that, of course, is just the cocktail-party top line. Really, Splinters is a treatise on the contradictions of being a mother, a partner, a daughter and an artist – singly, and all at once.

The book’s opening pages – in a section entitled “Milk” – flit back and forth in time, between the end of Jamison’s five-year relationship with the novelist Charles Bock (she refers to him just as “C”); her move with her 13-month-old daughter out of the couple’s home and into a sublet; conversations with a divorce lawyer; then back to she and C falling in love; forward again to their daughter’s birth; further forward to teaching university classes; and further back to experiencing her parents’ break-up, aged 11. Throughout, Jamison stacks up sensory, domestic details. “In those early days, he was a man frying little disks of sausage on a hot plate in a Paris garret, asking me to marry him. Making me laugh so hard I slipped off our red couch,” she writes. Five years later, in a new home with her daughter, it’s: “Our nights were full of instant ramen and clementines. My fingers smelled like oranges all winter.”

Jamison’s love for her daughter is the crux of this book. “I had imagined many things about motherhood, but never this specific thing: how good it would feel to watch my daughter grin at the simple joy of a tomato breaking open in her mouth.” Time and time again, she prises open everyday scenes and extracts queasily beautiful images.

But in a book so distinctly about mothering, it is even more affecting to read of Jamison’s relationship with her mother – which anchors her but brings other tensions. After her daughter has health complications in the days following her birth, Jamison turns first to her mother with the news that the baby is going to be OK. This act is at the centre of the breakdown of her marriage. For months afterwards C asks: “Why not me?” She can hardly explain it except to describe their bond in linguistic terms: “To talk about her love for me would feel tautological; she has always defined my notion of what love is.”

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In the following chapters, Jamison recalls her next boyfriends, a tattooed musician she names “the tumbleweed”, and a hedge fund worker she calls “the ex-philosopher”. During dinners and WhatsApp conversations, she is figuring out how to be a mother and a woman who dates, a carer and an artist, a teacher and a daughter. She quotes Marina Abramović and Judy Chicago, artists who have spoken publicly of their choice not to have children, lest parenthood “encumber” their career. She writes an essay about the sculptor Donald Judd, who made much of his work while a single father. As part of her research, Jamison interviews Judd’s son, Flavin, to ask how his father’s life as a parent shaped his life as an artist. She is “desperate” for him to tell her that “being a parent meant you could make art that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise”. Flavin doesn’t give her what she is looking for, insisting that his father’s art existed separately from his parenting. Jamison rails “against this easy refutation of influence”. When her life’s meaning is so tangled, she can’t fathom how anyone else’s was ever so clear cut.

Splinters doesn’t conclude with a resolution or life lesson. Earlier in the book, Jamison describes how the third time her father got married, her mother officiated the ceremony. Her parents’ “improbable closeness” is something at which people often marvel. But she has come to admire their “shared ability to hold contradictory feelings”. Leslie Jamison’s bold, thematically contrapuntal writing does just that too.

Splinters: A Memoir
Leslie Jamison
Granta, 272pp, £16.99

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[See also: Motherhood, the most political experience of my life]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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