‘A mesmerising and intoxicating collection of prose’ – Half in Shade by Judith Kitchen

Photographs. We’ve all got them. Previously they were stored in cardboard boxes or else in albums in bottom draws. However in more recent times they mostly reside on hard drives or else on USBs. You may take them for granted, laughing at the fashions and the hair styles of the time. Or those photographs may inspire memories of happier times and friends and family long gone are once more recalled.

These memories, facts and fictions, and the hidden stories behind photographs are the subject of Half In Shade, the latest collection of non-fiction by American writer Judith Kitchen. Told in rough chronological order, Kitchen explores the lives of her family through the photos, diaries, letters and memorabilia that have accumulated through the years.

Kitchen’s photographs stretch back from the coming of her ancestors toAmericain the 1840s to the present day. She presents us with a picture of a couple, young and healthy, staring into the sun as they sail toward the new world. Kitchen imagines that the couple are her great-grandparents. She attempts to gauge what they are thinking, full of enthusiasm for their new life yet she looking at the photo knows what fate has in store for them.

“They’ve left the old life behind – the one they might have led if they’d stayed – and now they are suspended between what they know and what I now know better than they ever could.”

One of the most poignant pieces centres on a trip her mother took aroundEuropeas a young woman in June 1930. Picture a group of young idealistic Americans touring aEuropebetween the wars.  Reading her mother’s journal of the journey, Kitchen learns of a shipboard romance her mother had with a man known only as Trueheart. Kitchen gasps in amazement as she uncovers her mother’s incipient romance with this mystery man. At times it is what is not said that causes Kitchen consternation, though in the end she is prepared to leave things as they are, and let the real mystery of the romance remain with her Mother.

Kitchen is an exponent of what she calls the lyric essay which she describes as eschewing content for method and then letting the method become the content. It asks the reader to make leaps and “to make a kind of narrative sense of the random and the chance encounter”, which accurately describes Half In Shade, down to the last word. For Kitchen the lyric essay is best described as a poem of prose rather than a prose poem.

Any Cop?: Half In Shade is a mesmerising and intoxicating collection of prose. It is best read in small bursts, the writing is lively, ornate and baroque. The book is divided into three parts containing short chapters and accompanying photographs, some of family members others of unnamed strangers. Each of the three part of the book ends with a meditation on Kitchen battle with, and recovery from, cancer. Those who appreciate the art of the essay, or non-fiction in general, will enjoy thoroughly enjoy this collection of prose.

Joe Phelan

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