Sometimes when you read a book, you curl up and embrace it. Rarely does it embrace you back. Rat Girl: A Memoir (aka Paradoxical Undressing in the U.K.), written by Kristin Hersh and set for release next Tuesday in the U.S., is one such book. A rarity.
The cover may be black, but you won't find a single stitch of black in the content. Don't ask me to assign it another. In the opening pages of her book, Hersh mentions that colors splashed across a canvas are all too quiet. The book, like her music, is vibrant. Chords have color. Her favorite color is green.
"Every time I think I'm done, I pick another song out of the chaos in the air. There songs're keeping me alive so they can be alive."
When writers interview Hersh, they like to ask her about her bipolar disorder. In her book, she recounts one story where the first question in an interview asked what she does "when you wake up on the wrong side of lithium." In another interview, one referenced in our Crooked review, she's asked if it shapes her music.
That is what most of them are chasing. Rat Girl may put some of that to rest. It's independent.
She doesn't pull lyrics from thin air but from the unique way she sees the world, noticing the extraordinary inside something mundane, like a handmade Jesus crucifix that resembles a fish, nailed to an apartment wall. The music is different. She hears it and then learns it into reality much like some writers with gifts let words go from fingertips. It comes from someplace else.
She's said this before. But people don't always hear it. Perhaps this book will stick.
Rat Girl sometimes reads much the same, as if portions come from someplace else. And, despite following her story from one spring to the next (1985), it reads free from the trappings of time. Each part is oddly permanent, as if it exists in space, waiting to be played again.
This makes for an interesting narrative. Instead of relying on seamless transitions, Hersh ties stories together by lines of inspired lyrics and, occasionally, relevant 3- to 5-paragraph memories from her early childhood. The result is a beautiful fusion of prose and art. Book Notes provides an exquisite preview.
Then again, all this might make the book sound deeper than it needs to be. It's loaded with wit that will make you smile. It's as celebratory as her music. And in between some sad notes, expect to laugh out loud. Frequently.
"What's this song about?"
"About? I don't know."
"I heard the word blow jobs."
"That's two words."
He stares. "Is that what's this is about?"
I know he's baiting me, but I have no good answer. "Yeah, Gil, it's about blow jobs."
He smiles. "I want you to put yourself in this song. What do you think it's about?."
"My roommate, Vicky, painted some cool stuff on a box when she was moving and some of it turned up in a song."
He looks stunned. "Really? 'Vicky's Box' is a song about Vicky's box? A box owned by someone named Vicky?"
"Mostly," I say embarrassed. "That's why I called it that."
Welcome to the world of Hersh. It's beautiful every step of the way, even in darker moments. Any sadness that materializes isn't attached to her story as much as it's attached to how much hurt she endured along the way.
Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh Is A 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
As a memoir, it isn't transparent and Hersh admits as much in the forward. It is, however, breathtakingly authentic, without reservations about anything she does share. It's a gift, much like it's a blessing to see beauty in ugliness and ugliness in beauty.
For Hersh, this is the way she is in the world. Rat Girl: A Memoir is available on Amazon, starting Tuesday. We'll add other format links as they become available. You can follow Hersh on Twitter and Facebook too.
Special thanks to Penguin Books for the thoughtfulness of an advance copy. It's already well worn and worth reading again and again.