We define ourselves by our stories, even though the stories we tell are never the same. When we reach into memory, we’re not pulling from a single still event, we’re plunging into a continuum and returning with the dripping bits that linger. We use language to string these bits into a story, and present it as an unchanging (for the moment) whole. But what happens when we’ve been damaged, traumatized? Our stories and our very selves become fragmented. In The Burning Light of Two Stars, Laura Davis writes down – she freeze-frames – two very different stories of damage, a mother-daughter narrative that shines with pain and, yes love.
As a very young girl, Laura’s narrative was wrecked by her grandfather’s sexual abuse. She stored these episodes outside of her “everyday” story, where they festered until they became a traumatic revelation. The new story annihilated a normal mother-daughter relationship for decades. But even though Laura had no memory of speaking to her mother, they still wrote letters. In the 21st century, when her mother began to experience the onset of Alzheimer’s, Laura’s mother returned from a cross-country exile, and Laura began to finalize a story she’d been telling and retelling. The Burning Light of Two Stars is that story, beautifully told in a cross-cut series of time travels between past and present, forward into an uncertain future.
At her heart a storyteller, Davis writes a page-turning, compelling narrative. Short scenes link through time and plot, making the book hard to put down even when it is difficult to read because the pain and love are so powerfully present on the page. But Davis knows that what gets us to read is plot, and there’s a lot here made from the fabric of ordinary everyday life with a parent succumbing to the story-destroying horror of Alzheimer’s. Add to that Laura’s own pain-and-love laden back story, and her well-wrought vision of suburban life and it gives the overall book a much lighter feel than one might expect given the omnipresent darkness that has cast a shadow over their lives.
Memoir is a very tricky genre. The very name implies memory and reflection, not action and story. And memoirs are by their very nature now-static scenes pulled from the rushing rivers of a writer’s ever-changing mind. Davis’s genius is to understand the fluid attentions of the reading mind, the give the river of our reading the headwaters what’s going to happen, to show us the past while focusing our minds on the future in a book that has in fact long passed. We exist in a future not imagined or imaginable by the minds in her book. We experience her past again, but it is no longer her past, and we are no longer in the same present we experienced before reading the book. Our futures are now entwined, and as we change, moment by moment, the past we reach back to remember will no longer be what once happened. It will be a new story, an we’ll be new storytellers.
You can hear Laura Davis untell her story by following this link, or listen below, in this moment, which will pass and change with or without your permission.