The Sunday Times (London)  - Books




                                January 09, 2005


                                Memoir: Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine


                                REVIEWED BY LUCY HUGHES-HALLETT




                                SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS

                                by Laura Shaine Cunningham



                                Bloomsbury £12.99 pp228

                                “Why do adults talk about the innocence of

                                childhood,” writes Laura Shaine Cunningham. “All

                                I remember is the intuitive guilt.” Cunningham

                                (who calls her child-self Lily in this memoir)

                                grew up in the Bronx. The neighbourhood’s

                                topography was fiercely dramatic. “Between us

                                and Manhattan lay an enormous whirlpool, which

                                was known to have sucked boats and barges into

                                its spiraling depths, then spit them up as

                                splinters.” She and her friend make a piece of

                                wasteland their playground and construct a wonky

                                den. It backs on to a precipice. “If we lean

                                against the wall, we will fall 200ft onto the

                                Cross Bronx Expressway.”

                                The population is no less alarming than the

                                landscape. Aged five, Lily plays with Diana — a

                                beautiful, filthy, virtually feral child

                                accustomed to being stoned by boys intimidated

                                by her knowingness. Diana urges Lily to explore

                                the overgrown “dark park” with her, and haggles

                                with the men who loiter there: a dollar for a

                                glimpse of the little girls’ bare bottoms.

                                “The details seem surreal, overly erotic,”

                                remarks Cunningham of her recollections, but

                                insists on their truth. The weirdness is

                                related, she suggests in an afterword, to “that

                                trance that memory shares with arousal”, the

                                preternatural intensity of experience and the

                                perceived suspension of time’s forward momentum

                                common to childhood self-absorption and passion.


                                Her father is an almost imaginary character, of

                                whose existence Lily is the only proof. He is

                                abroad, her mother tells her, “fighting the

                                enemy”. When Lily comes home with the news that

                                the second world war has been over for five

                                years, the story is revised. Her father “dies”,

                                and they mourn him ceremoniously. Not long

                                afterwards Lily’s mother dies for real.

                                This is a book in which every conventional

                                expectation is confounded. Childhood is pervaded

                                with corrupting experience. Neighbours are not

                                supportive but predatory: when the other

                                denizens of the apartment block come to offer

                                their condolences Lily notices them eyeing up

                                her mother’s best silk nightgown. And orphanhood

                                does not constitute expulsion from a protected

                                paradise but rather rescue from risk. The only

                                child of an adored single parent, Lily has been

                                participating in a romance, high on emotional

                                intensity but short on stability (she and her

                                mother have spent four years sleeping on couches

                                or under dining tables in relatives’

                                apartments). It is only when she is left alone

                                that she finds herself at the centre of a

                                ramifying family, and this memoir, so full of

                                harshness at its outset, becomes a celebration

                                of love.

                                First, Uncle Gabe moves into the tiny apartment

                                in which Lily and her mother fetched up. The

                                only observant member of this extended Jewish

                                family, Gabe introduces Lily to rituals

                                involving sashes and candles, which she finds

                                delicious, and he sits up all night composing

                                sentimental songs that will — he’s sure of it —

                                make him famous and that entrance his niece.

                                Then comes Uncle Len, 6ft 6in tall, with an

                                elaborately obfuscatory vocabulary and a

                                penchant for mystery. Finally, Lily’s

                                grandmother joins them, bringing another of this

                                book’s piquant reversals. This grandmother is

                                not a kindly baker of cookies, but a

                                superannuated vamp and a kleptomaniac who steals

                                the little girl’s hair ribbons.

                                Cunningham’s memoir has a trenchancy to match

                                its juvenile protagonist’s untempered view of

                                the world. The shocking, the funny, the

                                profoundly sad, are conveyed here with a

                                directness that sharpens their impact and makes

                                them glitter. “Our move had the effect of a

                                magic trick,” she writes of the day she and her

                                mother traveled by subway to a new apartment

                                carrying everything they owned. “We changed

                                households in minutes.” Her narrative is equally

                                spare and breathtaking. In quick-fire sentences

                                full of sardonic judgments and surprising detail

                                she conjures up her helter-skelter childhood and

                                the odd people who saw her safely through it.

                                For all the menace of its setting and the

                                fearsomeness of some of its characters, this is

                                a happy story. A couple of emasculated OBs

                                (short for Old Bachelors) and a demented

                                matriarch turn out to be a family infinitely

                                more satisfactory than the visible examples of

                                the more conventional model. Susan downstairs is

                                abruptly sent off to live with a sister when her

                                presence becomes inconvenient to her mother, an

                                ideal housewife; but Lily, although her hair is

                                so matted it brings the social workers round to

                                investigate her domestic circumstances, although

                                her meals are eccentric (Uncle Len cooks only

                                tuna croquettes) and her furniture mostly boxes,

                                is doted upon. As bright, startling and unusual

                                as the decor that Lily’s uncles allow her to

                                impose on them (orange and pink stripes

                                everywhere except on the gold lame sofa),

                                Cunningham’s book is both a tough, lucid

                                evocation of dangerous city life, and a story of

                                abundant love.

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