An autobiography which challenges the reader’s perceptions of things is always going to be worth reading; when the life itself is rich in experience and narrated with flair and refined prose, the whole book won’t fail to impress. I read Catana Tully’s ‘Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity’ over two days, mesmerised by her account of her upbringing, at first in Guatemala, by a German couple who split her from her birth mother and re-grafted her upon the stem of their family, though without formally adopting her.
The delicate handling of this chronological narrative, covering the whole of the author’s life, ensures that the circumstances are viewed from Catana’s perspective as she grows and matures, not with the benefit of hindsight from her position today; her subjectivity, stage by stage, therefore limits perspective and obliges the reader to examine personal attitudes to what happens and to the various characters who appear in Catana’s story. As a writer of crime fiction, I’m only too aware of the power of suggestion, implication and withheld information, and I found myself exploring what was being given without too much absolute certainty as to the validity of my deductions; Catana Tully plays the reader with supreme skill and the surprises continue to come again and again, right to the very end. This process, of course, ensures considerable empathy with the growing girl, but Catana doesn’t pull punches with her presentation of less appealing features of her developing character (gosh, she had some temper!).
I’m very reluctant to provide here much precise information about the narrative, as to do so would undoubtedly spoil others’ experience of reading it, but I will say that issues of (not in any order) heritage, culture, language, skin colour, prejudice (and I don’t just mean racial), origin, family, relationships, love, duty, education, psychology and adoption are presented for scrutiny in the most unobtrusive way, woven into the fabric of the story so skilfully that the mind continues to work on them long after the reading is complete.
This is a narrative which was clearly painful in the telling, for it lays bare the very nature of Catana herself and must have caused her considerable anguish, but her sense of humour and her great good sense both shine through, so that I was left with a feeling of great joy in the celebration of the self and the huge significance of personal identity. ‘Finding oneself’ is a pale way of depicting what this book is about, for it doesn’t shrink from shattering stereotypes and stereotypical ways of looking at and dealing with the world in the process of a quest that is quite overwhelming in its complexity.
Have I overwhelmed you with all this? I hope not, for the narrative is very readable indeed and the experiences which the book charts are fascinating, stimulating and often delightful. This is not a book that has an axe to grind or a message to pound home: it is a glorious tribute to the individual, in all her multi-faceted forms. Do read it; you will not be disappointed.