Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky is an account of her rape, the fallout afterwards and the subsequent trial. This book is nothing if not for the faint of heart. Sebold isn’t exactly coy with the details of the most horrific of the most traumatic event of her life.
I went into reading this being prewarned that it was intense. Yet I was not expecting it to happen quite so… fast.
Most memoirs, even those that concentrate around a significant event in the author’s life, have a bit of a preamble explaining how they got to this all important event. But not Alice Sebold. Ooh No. Instead, a graphic description of her rape begins right on page one and continues in excruciating and horrifying detail leaving you feeling sick and just… sad that you live in a world where this kind of thing can happen.
The book then goes on to show explain how people reacted, from complete strangers in her college dorm staring at her like she was somehow different to her father struggling to understand how she could have let herself be raped. She also fills us in on her “weird” family and the way her rape affected each of them.
But that’s only after the rape. The rape begins everything.
Beginnings are important. We’ve all heard the adage that you must begin your story with a bang but too little thought is usually given to the message that beginnings can give us. Why did Sebold begin there? Was it for shock value? To draw me into the narrative with one of the most shocking and horrifying things I’ve ever read? Or was it for another, narrative-related reason?
We tend to think of memoirs as linear and unchanging. We are born, stuff happens, hopefully it’s interesting, you write about it and share. You begin at the beginning and you end at the end. No more need be said. But that’s not how narrative works and Sebold treats her memoirs like narrative.
Placing her rape at the beginning of the book sends a very clear message. Sebold’s life is divided. Unlike other memoirs where significant events happen as part of one, continuous narrative of life, here there are clearly two sections that are irrevocably split. Before and After the rape. By placing the rape at the beginning of the book Sebold emphasises this split. The rape is what began the new chapter of the life in which she now lives. She can recall the before but she can never go back there. Beginning the memoir here shows how the rape has affected her entire life, effectively giving it a new beginning.
Writers often ask the question of ‘where does the story begin?’ Does it start with you characters setting off to resolve whatever conflict you’ve placed in their way? Or when your characters growing up? When they are born? Or when their parents met? You could keep going back further and further and it would get you nowhere. The real question is ‘where does the story begin and why?’ Why is this the first thing your readers will read? Is it important? Does placing it at the beginning mean something?
When Sebold begins her memoir she emphasises the importance of this event, she signals the new beginning of her life and recognises that her old life and the way things were before her new beginning are now inaccessible. They are part of the before.
I can’t say I enjoyed Lucky. However, I don’t think it’s a book you’re supposed to enjoy. I think it’s an important story that needs to be heard because above all else it’s a tale of survival. Sebold is irreversibly changed because of her rape but she survived. She survived through the trauma of the event itself, she survived through the perceptions and judgements of people who didn’t understand and she survived through the trial and conviction of her rapist. She’s changed, yes, damaged, most certainly, but she’s survived.
If you’ve got the chance I highly recommend you seek out and read Lucky it’s not a book you’ll easily forget. Just be prepared for the beginning.
Next time I’m looking at B R Collins’s Gamerunner. Get keen!