Prior to the event I attended last week, orchestrated by Penguin Random House in the hope of expanding accessibility to publishing, I had never heard of Yrsa Daley-Ward or her writing. And boy, have I been missing out. At the event, we had the opportunity to take home a few books, and I coincidentally chose two of her works, not realising that they were both by the same author. I devoured The Terrible, a memoir about growing up as a black woman in the North-West of England, and her poetry collection, Bone, in a matter of days. In fact, I finished The Terrible in less than twenty four hours which is insane for me, considering how much time I usually like to spend getting to grips with a text. Generally speaking, I can always tell if a book is worth reviewing if I found myself turning page after page in a race to get to the end, or if I felt compelled to think harder and understand more about the characters. These books ticked both boxes for me, and so here I am to curate my thoughts.
Let’s start with The Terrible. It’s a beautiful memoir written (almost entirely) from the perspective of a young girl named Yrsa, who delivers her story chronologically with her memories delivered through digressions amidst the main narrative. The style is heavily poetical, and Yrsa’s narration gives a unique take on the themes of the book. She discusses her life from childhood onward, delving into her experiences of being a black girl growing up in Chorley in a single parent family, not far from where I grew up as a child. As a character, she highlights how black women, caught between religious family and a heavily white-washed community, often themselves feel as if they are a contradiction. Her identity is a mass of tension, because she cannot articulate entirely which part of society she belongs to, or who she wants to be. I loved how she explored the generational conflicts in the black community, not dissimilar to how many experience a tension between trying to live up to the expectations of strictly Christian grandparents, and attempting to be part of a more liberated and expressive society.
‘Something is also happening concerning how I feel about mirrors, at precisely the same time. I know what I look like, secondhand. Adults say pretty. I cannot fathom this. My reflection looks to me like lines and circles that can’t work out. Large eyes and too much limb and thickness and black black skin and there are several contradictions in the dark.’
Yrsa is a lovable narrator. You feel everything that she feels- you laugh when she laughs, but you also want to cry for her when you see what kind of experiences she has to face. From the playground bullying which alienates her, or the hypersexualisation she faces throughout her transition into womanhood, her experiences embody too many terrible aspects of the world we still live in today. The way we watch Yrsa navigate her own sexuality and the sense of power she finds in embracing it is another really interesting and thought-provoking element. One theme I found particularly hard hitting was her discussion of mental health. Whilst it has become a topic so frequently spoken and written about, particularly in the last year or so, I found her account of her experiences to be a drastically unique take on the symptoms she suffers, and it was refreshing to break away from an educational narrative in this shamelessly honest memoir. She lays it out how it is, and we get to follow every step of her journey, including the very first moments of her battle with depression. The theme continues throughout, and her approach to the subject is encapsulated when she is faced with death in the family, as well as a suicide attempt from someone close to her, emphasising how prevalent mental health problems and how they often effect people from marginalised communities. The way the author writes about this topic is so honest and it really struck me as a very simplistic, poetic and emotional, whilst emotionless, account of how it is to experience poor mental health, as well as grief, and learning to support others through their pain.
‘All I can think is,
beauty makes everything bearable.’
In a similar way to The Terrible, Yrsa writes Bone, a stunning collection of poetry which is brutally honest and embodies all that it means to face up to the truth. It delves into the meaning of life itself, and encapsulates the authors experiences from her memoir, but in a more abstract and philosophical direction. I think poetry is definitely harder to talk about, particularly when there’s a sense of absent plot. Some of the overarching themes that are visible include desire, truth, love, faith, loss and understanding the inner self. Rather than obliterate it by trying to explain it to any degree, I’ll just say that I very much enjoyed it, especially when read along side or very near after the memoir aforementioned. She’s a beautiful writer and I really hope I can create anything half as beautiful one day. Here’s a few poems I particularly enjoyed- thanks for reading.
were married to yourself
could you stay with yourself?
would be frightening and wild.’
‘If I’m entirely honest, and you say I must be,
I want to stay with you all afternoon
evening, night and tomorrow
pressed into you so tightly that we don’t
know whose belly made what sound,
whose heart it is that is thumping like
until I don’t know if the sweat on my
chest is yours or mine or ours.’
Pages 59, 38
Pages 58, 66