WE ARE ALL SHIPWRECKS
By Kelly Grey Carlisle
Published in September 2017 by Sourcebooks
Reviewed by Jordan Smith
Kelly Grey Carlisle’s poignant, heartrending book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys memoirs or who hopes to write a successful one themselves.
When Carlisle was an infant, her mother left her in a dresser in a hotel room. Then, her mother was murdered.
This fact alone would make Carlisle’s life atypical. Yet her unique childhood was only beginning. Raised by her maternal grandfather, Carlisle’s Los Angeles childhood was spent living on a docked house boat. The source of her grandfather’s income? An adult video store.
As Carlisle grows up, she yearns for more information about the mother she never knew. Her progression to womanhood is accompanied not only by the typical disillusionment of teenage years, but the realization that the narratives she’s been fed about her mother’s history may not be entirely true – and that she may never be able to find the truth.
And yet Carlisle’s story is far from bleak. She writes lyrically, but with rawness and accessibly, on the wonders of childhood and on her connections with a fascinating and flawed cast of family and friends. Some of the most moving parts of the book are Carlisle’s descriptions of how she begins to find herself through the physicality of joining the swim team and the joys of expressing herself through writing. For all the uniqueness of her upbringing, Carlisle’s memoir is still inherently relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or who has longed to know more about themselves and where they came from.
Carlisle effortlessly pivots between immersing herself and the reader in the world of her child-self, to reflecting on those experiences as her adult-self. Particularly affecting is the way Carlisle writes about the concepts of memory versus imagination — try not to be moved as she imagines interacting with the mother she doesn’t remember.
In her weaving together of imagined and actual experiences, Carlisle deftly engages with questions at the heart of all good memoirs: what do we remember, what in our memory is actually true, and why does it matter?
Jordan Smith is WLT’s Member Services Manager. In her spare time, she writes the gluten-free food blog Small Comforts Kitchen, obsessively listens to the Hamilton cast recording, and pretends she’s Wonder Woman while trying to get better at weightlifting. She is currently at work on two novels, as well as a narrative nonfiction book about female motorists in America at the turn of the century.