Book review: Memoir both flawed and beautiful
This is a true story: They meet at an audition for a tragedy, and their lives spin together before spiraling apart. Then, Jason is killed in a motorcycle accident, and Leigh is left to mourn and come to terms with memories of him, particularly of a period of several months they spent together in New Mexico. Their relationship and the scars he leaves behind are as violent as the crash that takes his life, and through her memoir, Leigh Stein weaves this damaging, but redeeming, experience into the fabric of her story to understand its place in a greater narrative.
When I first heard Leigh Stein speak about her memoir, “Land of Enchantment,” I was at a writing conference in Los Angeles, and she shared the panel with bestselling author Cheryl Strayed. Through the course of the conference, I received many bits of interesting writing advice, but Stein’s was the most pertinent succinct: “Write your obsession.”
She went on to describe that she had tried to write other stories but found she was constantly plotting ways to send her characters to New Mexico. She needed to grapple with the time she spent there, a place expanded by her imagination. In turn, I became focused on finding and reading Stein’s memoir to watch meaning unfold at the intersection of place and memory.
Though admittedly young to write a memoir, Stein looks back on a younger version of herself and treats the person she once was with understanding and tenderness. She shows a girl becoming a woman through the transformative experience of entangling, then disentangling, herself from the dominating personality of a boy out of control.
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The writing in this book is by no means perfect; Stein often lapses into a telling-rather-than-showing recounting of events. I also couldn’t help wondering what this book would look like through different perspectives of time, perhaps 10, 20 or even 30 years. Her closeness to these events, however, is how she creates the intensity, so there is value in the short view.
The memoir is ultimately not about Jason or Leigh, but rather about the way land takes possession of memory. Though her dreams about New Mexico began as hope for a new beginning, the dingy apartment and highway diner where Leigh lives and works reveal a place deeply rooted in an unwanted reality.
This Land of Enchantment becomes a place of disillusionment and harsh realizations for the young author, but it also becomes a place she can possess her memory as her own — disassociated with Jason and his control and manipulation — and proof of her independence and ability to survive.
This is a story about complex relationships — both to a place and a human — she both loves and fears. The landscape of love, like this memoir, is a place both flawed and beautiful.
This book is available at Off the Beaten Path and Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Jamie Burgess is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.
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