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The International Writers Magazine: Memoirs

Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh
Paperback: Penguin 2010
ISBN: 978-0-14-311739-1
Paul Valentine
Let me get one thing straight. I adore Kristin Hersh, even knowing that she would hate that. My Facebook profile picture shares an image with a woman, not my wife, but yes, Kristin Hersh. This means that my review will be biased I hear you say, and you would be so wrong.


This means that my review will be so accurate. You see Ms. Hersh is very complex.  If I agreed with the concept of genius, she would be the nearest to it. Strangely, she even qualifies for the accolade according to Kay Redfield Jamison's theory of genius being linked to Bipolar Affective Disorder. But I don't agree with that either. So, believe me this review will be accurate. Those who don't know her, simply could not review this work - they would either hate it, or like it for the wrong reasons.

Rat Girl is a memoir. I detest memoirs. Memoirs are like religion, they espouse the truth, when in fact they are myth, fiction, and often wishful thinking. This memoir however, is as near to the truth as you are ever likely to get: for one simple reason - K H is completely self-effacing. A leitmotif of self-mocking and numerous admissions of madness run through the text and this is important. Let me give you an example. This is Kristin talking with Betty Hutton at McGill University. Kristin went a couple of years early because her father taught there, whereas Betty was old. Kristin's father introduced them, knowing they would hit it off. Indeed, they became lifelong friends. Rat Girl is in dedicated to Betty. This conversation occurs beneath a old gnarled yew tree, Kristin is the first person in the piece:

"Fames for dorks," I say offhandedly. "Only idiots wanna be in that club."
Her mouth drops open. "I had my own TV show! I was on the cover of Time magazine!"
Oops. I gather my books and crouch by the branch door. Ummm...."You didn't buy your own hype, did you?"
She freezes, then cracks up. "You're right," she says, laughing, "fames for dorks."
We have a problem with people "buying their own hype." Not just famous people, but everybody. We accuse lots of people of doing this. We love to accuse people of buying their own hype. "Fame's for dorks," she chuckles again, crawling towards the branch door. When she gets there, the knees of her pantsuit black with mud, she looks up at me. "If my wig blows off on the way to class, you'll catch it for me right?"
I step outside and lift the branch for her. "I'm not you're butler."
"Old bones," she mutters, straightening.
"I think you're pretty fucking spry, Aunt B., scramblin' around on you're hands and knees like that".
Betty grips her books and purse in one hand and puts her other arm around me, squinting into the sun and wind. "I am pretty fucking spry!"

So there you have it, the youngest and the oldest people friends at Uni. They are misfits. In fact Hersh has always been a misfit. Bearing in mind that this memoir is taken from diary notes made in just one year, misfit comes across in page one and doesn't leave the last page. When you consider that Kristin's dream is to own a motorbus and travel the states, misfit tends to go with the territory.

From nights at a lonely squat, through being nearly killed by a witch in a Cadillac, to psychotic episodes in which snakes inhabit the piece, through Uni, and several gigs where the headline band are too young to drink and often have to pay to enter their own show, Rat Girl dreamily reaches its conclusion. Somewhere along the way Stardom enters, but I'm not sure where. Kristin Hersh would never be one to buy her own hype. The end leaves us with a now pregnant Kristin, unplanned of course, and looking like she would need an abortion. Would she ever...her son Bo and the rest of her large family have given her so much in life.

As part of my MA course, I once ploughed through one of Kerry Catona's memoirs - things you do eh!  It strikes me that these two memoirs could not be any further apart. Hersh is a composer as well as a singer/songwriter. Her music is deep, her lyrics often deeper. She has tasted fame but doesn't like it, preferring musicianship and motherhood to goddess and idolatry. Her feet are on the ground. She is a lovely, loving person with a self-effacing and witty personality and has battled hard to be where she is, loving life, and loving her work.

Although Rat Girl appears structure-less, the inclusion of memories and lyrics from her songs give the whole a unified and mesmeric feel. It's a very easy read, flowing through the trees like a summer breeze, 'like a hot summer dog on a lawn'. Funny thing is, I actually read it some time ago; Kristin actually sent it to all her subscribed fans. I’m sure Penguin never knew. That’s Kristin for you! Rat Girl will make you laugh, it may make you cry, but you will be the better for reading it; her artistry shines through every page, and whatever else Kristin Hersh may be, she is most definitely a consummate artist.

If you want to find out more about Kristin Hersh, these websites may help:

Readers who may wish to listen to her music should start with Strange Angels - an acoustic album with glimpses of the Rat Girl and a rich poesy that looks back to musical and folk roots.

© Paul Valentine Nov 2010
Paul has just graduated with an MA in Creative Writing

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