The Part That Burns, by Jeannine Ouellette
Truth and beauty in narrative structure
Memoirs with Melissa shares twice monthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. To see more of what I’m reading, browse my activity on The Story Graph.
There are more options for storytelling than the traditional narrative arc. The first time I tried to explain the alternatives I’d discovered in Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, I ran out of words. I hadn’t read the novels Alison uses as examples and couldn’t think of any books well known by my fellow writers. The idea of new shapes was an intriguing theory I wanted to share, but I couldn’t yet point to an obvious example of how it works, and works well.
Enter The Part that Burns, by Jeannine Ouellette. I’m a fan of Ouellette’s writing and teaching on her Substack Writing in the Dark. The written word is how I best process information, which means her teaching format works well for me; not to mention, her prose kills me. It’s raw, thoughtful, beautiful, and real. I picked up her memoir in hopes of gleaning insight into how she navigated writing difficult truths that impact people whose lives have intersected with hers. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect story structure was central to this feat.
Ouellette describes the structure of her memoir as elliptical. Childhood sexual abuse is the point she spirals around, but she spends so little direct time there that it’s less of a difficult and more of an enthralling read. She doesn’t do this to sidestep the truth or gloss over the hard stuff. Her cyclical movement through childhood, relationships, and parenting drives the narrative in a purposeful way that allows her readers to digest the content and perhaps have a shot at healing their own wounds.
Sometimes when I read narratives that jump back and forth in time, I feel jolted and disoriented. This is not the case with Ouellette’s memoir. She’s not moving around to keep people’s attention. She’s steering her reader with intention, mixing past and present in a way that makes them both more vivid and accessible.
Concrete details from the past convey powerful emotions in the present. For example, page 92 depicts an adult confrontation with her mom about what she did or did not know about Ouellette’s sexual abuse as a child. Rather than describing her mom’s probable emotions in that conversation, Ouellette flashes to a scene of her mom as a young girl herself, tumbling into an accident that results in “a perfect arc of blood pulsing from her thigh.” Without telling us, we know: her mom is gutted.
Other times concrete details from the present communicate something about the effects of the past without actually telling us. In a sex scene from her adult life on page 78, Ouellette writes “I clenched my teeth. I curled my toes.” Because the language mirrors a previous scene from her childhood, instantly, we know: she’s having a flashback.
And so the narrative continues, churned with lyrical prose like “My heart is a trapped animal bashing itself against my sternum“ and “I searched the open water of your eyes.” The central point of the book is a collection of events that calls for internal reflection. Ouellette orbits them masterfully with tangible, external realities we can all imagine and feel in the body.
So how does an elliptical/spiral narrative end? Do we keep going in circles forever? Sometimes the healing process feels like that. As Ouellette notes while weeding her garden on page 97, “This work is addictive, a trance of never-ending elimination.” But spirals aren’t perfect circles. In Meander, Spiral, Explode, Alison describes them as “Near repetitions, but moving onward.”
The Part That Burns does end, and with genius. I imagine the final pages would be especially healing for people who have experienced sexual abuse. I can also attest to their power to speak to people who have experienced other types of trauma. You’ll have to enter the vortex to discover it for yourself.
Interested in learning more from Jeannine Ouellette? Her 12-Week Story Challenge, starts tomorrow.
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