The Chronology of Water

By Lidia Yuknavitch

Hawthorne Books
April 2011
310 pages


Reviewed by Renée E. D'Aoust


Lidia Yuknavitch states that The Chronology of Water is "not another story about addiction… No matter how marketable the addiction story has become, this is not that story. My life is more ordinary. More like … more like everyone's." This "ordinary" insistence makes Yuknavitch's words punch right through the page. It's rather a relief that this is not an addiction memoir or a book about too much sex, although there's lots of great randy sex on these pages. The Chronology of Water is simply an unapologetic story about life.

The Chronology of Water is a memoir that makes you stop breathing and start breathing; I felt startled and trapped and astonished and bewildered and inspired all at once. The in-breath made me gasp, making me want to read more of Yuknavitch's water. The out-breath made me sigh, making me want to be her water. Reading The Chronology of Water is like reading while swimming weightless under water with no need to come up for air. It's that different, that remarkable.

To write that water as a theme is used throughout Yuknavitch's work is to trivialize such a theme. It's more than the fluid that fills our bodies; water is the way Yuknavitch lives and conceives of her life. When she is busted, literally busted, only then does Yuknavitch name one of the specific strokes in which she competed and won (I won't name it here); by then we know her mother swam the sidestroke.

Early on, leaving the family home to start college in the godforsaken dry town of Lubbock, Texas, she sees in her airplane window that "strip of shitty sand that is Florida recede and disappear. Girl in the sky weightless as water." Even airborne, whether physically in a plane or while careening through her mind, or on land smashed on booze, Yuknavitch is always swimming. An endless alcoholic bender with her partner is imagined as liquid. She is woman as fish.

In destruction there is the possibility of creation: "While we were underwater stories began itching at my fingertips." Born of familial abuse that fuels her self-sabotage, Yuknavitch's rage propels her forward, but she also has a fundamental belief that art can be born of everything, from every woman's hole: "Age doesn't matter, there is no progress away from the orifice."

The "me" in memoir figures prominently, as it should, but Yuknavitch takes those two letters of the "me" and transforms them into methodology, movement, metamorphoses, engagement, evolution, and ecology. By default, water evokes movement and ecology, but here we have fragments of a life reconstructed through the world of ideas:

I'm trying to think how to tell you how four weeks can be years. It isn't possible, I know. But it happened. It's language that's letting me say that the days elongated, as if the very sun and moon had forsaken me. It's narrative that makes things open up so I can tell this. It's the yielding expanse of a white page.

The possibility that words can claim and restate our histories (let's call them "herstories" instead of "his") is not some psychobabble television talk show crap. The sense of possibility of human endeavor is within Yuknavitch's water of words: rushing streams, waterfalls, still pools, fetid rain puddles, deep reservoirs, swimming pools, snow, the Florida coast, the Oregon coast, and liquid addiction. She writes: "How many times do we die? Words, like selves, are worth it."

If one welcomes the radical past, one can shout out to the world: Here I am. Despite criticism of memoir as one of the genres most subject to narcissistic navel-gazing, it is also one of the genres that can unmask the personal story in a way that gives the reader pause, revealing something persistent, though differently interpreted, about human experience. The Chronology of Water shows how deeply humbling the human experience can be while it also shows the liberation of the self from shame. Yuknavitch's words stimulate the camaraderie of human feeling about being a human animal—about being a full self: "Little tragedies are difficult to keep straight. They swell, cluster and swim in and out between one another, collect and pool in sinkholes of the brain."

At the beginning of Yuknavitch's first book, Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997), there is a segment of this book, a tadpole, called "The Chronology of Water":

The day my daughter was born, after I held the future stillborn and pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a stool and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, you probably want to wash yourself. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit.

The beginning of the story is death. From an end in blood, the start of the story is born again—this time it is called memoir, not fiction. Now Yuknavitch explores memory rather than imagination. Yuknavitch's full memoir The Chronology of Water also begins with death, but although the words start in similar fashion, this time they are deeper, more fully felt, more fully rendered:

The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, That feels good, doesn't it. The water. She said, you are still bleeding quite a bit. Just let it.

In The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch returns—fearlessly—to death as a subject, death as a beginning, both in terms of the very real wrenching death of her daughter and her own previous zombie-like living. Yuknavitch's words smack up against the asinine things people say in the face of what is real in our lives, and she goes even further. Yuknavitch pulls her reality out through her body so that we, the readers, cannot look away. Call it story. Call it memoir. Call it water. All experience welcome. But start calling it life. After all, the day we start living is the day we start dying.