I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Heeheehee, this RIP Challenge is jolly good fun.  At this rate I will have read way too many spooky books before Halloween.  I should pace myself, except I can’t because The Girl in a Swing just came in at the library and I went and picked it up today and I really really really want to read it.

Jennifer Finney Boylan‘s I’m Looking Through You is all about how Jenny Boylan (Jenny! hooray! More people should be called Jenny!) grew up as a boy in a spooky old house, haunted by ghosts and writing under the wallpaper.  She writes with love (and some regret) about her family, and particularly about her sister Lydia, whom she hasn’t seen since she came out as a trans woman.  This is sadder than you might expect, and I was expecting it to be pretty sad.

It’s a quiet, gentle book (hm, as far as the RIP Challenge goes, I’ve now said “quiet” about two of two books – weird) that slides past the really dramatic moments in the story.  This is good for me, actually, as it lessens my usual concerns about memoir writers telling every detail of the often very sad and private episodes of their families’ lives.  We don’t see the crucial moments, but we do see the scenes that lead up to the crucial moments; it works surprisingly well, conveying a lot of emotion through these small, everyday scenes.  Without laying bare the darkest moments of the lives of each member of the family.  More than many I’ve read, this is a respectful memoir.

The haunted house is not very scary, but it is certainly atmospheric.

[My father] stripped off another swath of damp [wall]paper, then stood for a moment looking at the exposed bare plaster.  “Hey,” he said.  “What do you make of this?”

There on the plaster, at shoulder level, was a line written in fancy cursive script.

In this room in the year 1923 lived Dorothy Cummin, who was not of sound mind, and drowned.

…Next to the closet we found a face with an open mouth, long hair, and eyes filled with tears.  It looked a little like the translucent woman I had seen in the mirror.

My father got out his pack of L&Ms.  He stood there by the sad, knowing face of the girl on the wall for a while, smoking, and did not say a word.

Ms. Boylan’s own skepticism is palpable, even when she brings in a team of “ghostbusters” to check out the paranormal energy there – this is good because otherwise I’d be all, hm, this is v. hokey.  What’s not hokey at all, and indeed is very genuine, is the author’s description of being haunted by her certainty that she was a girl, and the inner ghosts that obviously still haunt her as an adult.

Plus, it’s a funny and enjoyable and readable book.  Like this:

“You know what the problem with kids today is?” my grandmother said all at once.

“What?” I asked.

“They don’t eat enough dirt!”

My sister and I looked at each other.

“Dirt?” asked Lydia.

“I said dirt,” said Gammie.  “When I was a girl, we ate dirt all the time!  Now nobody does!”

“Why would you eat dirt?” I asked.  “Is it good for you?”

Gammie looked amazed by my stupidity.  “Of course it’s not good for you!” she shouted.  “It’s DIRT!”

“Whoop?  Whoop whoop?” said Hilda Watson.  This sound, a kind of startled interjection, was the sound Hilda made when she suspected that a response was required of her, even if she did not necessarily know what had been asked.

“Can you turn up the heat?” said Aunt Nora.  “It’s freezing in here.”

“Did they eat dirt over there in Yorkshire?” my grandmother shouted.

Hilda, who had begun her life in a tiny village in England, near the border with Lancashire, looked astonished.  “We had pudding on some occasions,” she said, her dignity intact.

“I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT PUDDING,” shouted my grandmother.  The Dodge had a strange device that has since gone completely out of fashion – the stick shift on the steering column – and Gammie kicked us up into overdrive as the car sped through Bryn Mawr.  “I’m talking about dirt!”

“Oh dear,” said Nora.  “I’m so, so, so cold!”

“I know what you’re talking about,” said Hilda to my grandmother.  “I don’t wish to discuss it.”

My grandmother shook her head. “You’re a ton of fun, Hilda.”

“I’m so, so, so cold!”

“There’s no reason to be rude,” Hilda observed.

“You think this is rude?” said Gammie. “You wait.”

Tell me if you reviewed this too!  And thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

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14 thoughts on “I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan

    • I did! And after I finished it, I realized I’d read the author’s other memoir, She’s Not There before, a while ago. I remember hardly anything about it, but I remembered Grace. So I think I will have to check that one out of the library too.

    • Quiet memoirs especially (for me). I think when you’re writing a story about yourself, it’s really easy to over-dramatize, and much more difficult to get the emotions you’re going for by giving great meaning to small, on-the-surface insignificant scenes.

    • No, I don’t! I love it. Everyone should be named Jenny. I only don’t want it when it’s me. All other people should joyously be named Jenny! I am no Tom Riddle!

      • I can’t quote exactly, but I do recall a note to me saying triumphantly something like “Ha! I made that little name stealing brat cry!” about a character named Jenny. And you certainly hate Jenny Calendar much more vehemently than I think you would if she were not also named Jenny.

    • I love the idea of writing under the wallpaper. Fortunately there isn’t any wallpaper in my apartment at all, because if there were I’m not sure I would be able to resist the temptation to rip it all off.

  1. Pingback: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale « Jenny's Books

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