Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books

Girl with Dove is an uncommon book about an unusual childhood. Growing up in a crowded, ramshackle house where grownups often behaved in ways that were difficult to understand, Sally Bayley read and re-read Jane Eyre, Miss Marple, and David Copperfield, gleaning clues she hoped would help her make sense of her world. Girl with Dove is a memoir, but because Bayley delves so deeply into her childhood imaginings, blurring the lines between fiction, family history, and memory, the book often reads like fiction.

In her short preface to Girl with Dove, Bayley writes, “All stories have backstories, at least all stories worth knowing about, and all readers want to pry into those unlit spaces. We read to get back to those dark and dusty corners, to scrape back to old patterns: the strange symbol beneath the damp plaster, the squiggles on the crumbling wall.”

As I began reading the book, I assumed that this comment was primarily self-descriptive, that Bayley was telling us why she reads, and why she read as a child. But revisiting the preface after my first read through her memoir, I began to suspect that this opening is also a reminder to the reader, a prediction that, as we read this book, we will find ourselves searching for the backstory, trying to pry into dark corners of the author’s memories.

This idea of backstories runs through Girl with Dove, both in the sense that, as a memoir, it is the backstory of the author, a bildungsroman that tells us how she became who she is, and also in that it is a book that requires us to read between the lines, looking for subtext and history, clues to what we’ve missed. Like a crime novel, Girl with Dove relies on the reader’s desire to figure things out. As we read, we both construct a narrative for ourselves and watch young Sally struggling to use familiar stories like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield to understand her family and her place within it.

Through the young Sally’s literary imaginings, Miss Marple’s village, St. Mary Mead, is transposed on top of Littlehampton, where Sally grows up; Sally’s mother, with her shiny black handbag and coiffed blonde hair, becomes Margaret Thatcher from the newspapers, or, wandering around the house in her nightgown, transforms into a ghostly woman from a Bronte novel; and the discreet, reliable doctors from Agatha Christie novels amalgamate into the doctor who Sally visits on Maltravers drive. And then there are family secrets and histories, the kinds of memories that are half your own and half other people’s, stories assembled from things you saw and heard, and things the grownups said when they thought you weren’t listening. Sally recounts the story of her grandmother Maisie’s marriage to Awful Alfred, who “made her do the washing up and cook the dinner for years”; she imagines Maisie as a young woman, working as a maid for someone like Miss Marple; she pieces together stories of Sue, her aunt, who spoke in tongues and delivered prophecies and married herself off to Christ in the front room.

Early in Girl With Dove, Bayley writes, “Miss Marple likes to deal with facts, because facts are concrete. Mum likes facts too. […] ‘You’ve got to get your facts straight, Sally. First ask, what are the facts? You’ve got to get your facts first before you can begin anything!’” But facts are elusive. Girl with Dove is constructed around a rough timeline of facts: the death of baby David, the appearance of Aunt Di upstairs, a visit from a social worker, the arrival of a small inheritance, and Sally’s decision to put herself into care. But a look closer at any one of these facts raises new questions and uncertainties: What exactly happened to David? Who was Sue? Who were the strange singing people she had once brought to the house, and where did they all go off to? Not all of these questions are answered, which some readers may find frustrating; but it’s worth considering whether a memoir with loose ends is perhaps more honest than one that reveals all and wraps up neatly.

Bayley has a vivid, distinctive voice, and I was impressed with how deftly she handled the book’s more fraught moments, portraying her family with affection and humor, even when she has clearly been hurt by them. Girl with Dove is also unique in that it is as much a meditation on how stories and memories shape one another as it is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve found it difficult to think of books that do so in a similar way. The closest comparison I can think of is Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a work of auto-fiction that plays with genre in rather different ways. Readers looking for an inventive exploration of how books shape us will not be disappointed.

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