I approached this book with trepidation.
Back in 2014 Viv Albertine delivered a vivid and quietly furious autobiography, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, which brought anyone who was interested up to date on a messy life embracing childhood poverty, cancer, infertility, divorce, quite a lot of awful sex and her four years in the amateurish but culturally significant all-girl punk band The Slits. What more could she have to offer?
An odd but compelling hybrid of a memoir, it transpires. This book starts as an observational account of Albertine trying to construct a new, post-divorce life in Hackney: new flat; new attempts at relationships with awful, useless men; new career as a published author which seems remarkably similar to her hand-to-mouth punk days.
She throws drinks over disrespectful people and still races to get the upstairs front seat of the 55 bus. Punchy vignettes of the indignities wrought by age, illness and romantic disappointment are underscored by Albertine’s weary, deadpan dryness, and her fierce adoration of her mother Kath and teenage daughter Vida.
Gradually, the narrative crystallises around the death at 96 of Kath, a roll-up smoking librarian who brought Viv and her sister Pascale up in north London when their Corsican sailor father Lucien left in the late Sixties.
Kath watched Viv drop out of art school to form her first band with Sid Vicious, put her up through later periods of homelessness, tolerated her late-night phone calls and lentil bakes, only to become the cared-for rather than the carer. Surely she will be the heroine of a matriarchal family saga, with Vida picking up the banner for a new generation?
But families are never that simple. When Lucien died (just in time, Viv notes, for his meagre estate to pay for her divorce lawyer) he left a tranche of papers that put a new slant on the acrimonious family history. The lack of sisterly feeling between Viv and Pascale, fostered by both parents in childhood, comes to a shocking flashpoint over Kath’s deathbed. And Kath leaves a second set of papers behind, disingenuously labelled “To throw away unopened”, which further complicate the story and add a stepbrother into the messy, imperfect mix.
By the end, the author is lonely (people flinch when she tells them that) but resolute, having lived, in Gloria Steinem’s phrase, her mother’s unlived life. If Vida follows the same pattern she will have to become a boringly conformist goody-goody. “On the plus side,” Albertine notes, “there’s being well-educated, retaining most of her brain cells, gender fluidity and skiing.” If that sentence makes you smile, give her book a go.
To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine (Faber, £14.99), buy it now.