When people find out that I was born in the US, but moved to India at age nine, I’m asked almost immediately about the hardest part of making that transition. While I went through some challenges that were fairly terrifying at such a young age – learning to use water to wash myself instead of toilet paper; taking an autorickshaw unassisted and convincing myself I wasn’t going to die; and learning fairly quickly that mosquitoes were terrible and liked American blood and no amount of creams or mosquito netting would assuage their wrath – the most challenging part of my move was getting used to Indian school life.
And as anyone who has ever lived in India can tell you, the country and its educational institutions are still very much steeped in British culture. So, when I began reading Susanna Kaysen’s latest novel, Cambridge, I found myself chortling, smiling, cringing and just plain empathizing with much of the first part of the novel as she adjusts to life in England, away from her sanctuary of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Who needed American candy (“a Hershey bar seemed like a sketch of chocolate”) when you had Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (“so startlingly sweet that it put me in a swoon”)? Why did the teacher insist on us memorizing our “times table” and why didn’t we just call it multiplication? And why was everyone talking about getting permission to go to “the loo”?
Kaysen’s frank and honest description of growing up in two different countries; her thoughts on the arrival of her baby sister; and her Roald Dahl-like sense of humor as she tried to fathom her intellectual, yet polar opposite parents, all spoke to my own experiences of a bi-cultural childhood. The inclusion of the side story involving Kaysen’s Swedish nanny Frederika and the budding romance with the Indian musical conductor Vishwa only added to the magic of the novel as we are taken on a hilarious and confusing journey through filial, cultural and international group dynamics. Think classic, British, first-person adolescent perspectives like Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole novels or Gerald Durrell’s 1956 classic My Family and Other Animals, but from a girl’s point of view.
But is Cambridge really a novel? Nothing I have suggested up to this point, or even in the book, would give the reader the perspective that it’s anything but an autobiography. Yet, why is it listed as a novel? Although I’m familiar with Kaysen’s most famous work, Girl, Interrupted, I haven’t read it or any of her other works. However, other reviewers of Cambridge have noted, some with alarm and some with confusion, that many of the characters in this book are her actual parents or family members and that much of her experiences – growing up in Cambridge in an Ivy League-environment, moving overseas often as her father worked as a consultant or faculty member at foreign governments and universities – were actual events in Kaysen’s life.
Further, two major themes that slowly develop and become life-changing are the narrator’s depression, which begins even before she enters her teens, and her struggles with puberty, which after her first period, become an all-consuming theme not just for her, but for the reader, who suddenly finds himself reading a young adult novel that sounds a lot like Judy Blume’s 1970 classic, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Are we supposed to interpret these new and haunting themes as just plot twists or are these important episodes into Kaysen’s own life?
So, why is Cambridge positioned as a novel and not a memoir? More importantly, does it matter? I think it does. While the line between fiction and non-fiction is vague and almost mercurial, it does separate imagination and reality, and it is of vital importance to the reader to know if the memories being recollected were imagined or were actual experiences of the writer.
Think of great memoirs like The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick or The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride; isn’t it absolutely crucial to know that these were works of honesty and sadness from lives lived, and not just from an over-active imagination? And if it doesn’t matter, then why do we get so upset when we discover that something advertised as autobiography, is actually fiction, perhaps purloined from someone else’s life like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces or Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers?
Kaysen ends Cambridge with a declaration on the end of her childhood and the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She writes, “This is what was wonderful, standing alone in the big, soft night rewriting the past to make myself miss what had never been. Now that it was over, I could turn the past into anything I wanted. I could revise the empty space inside me so that it had a better shape: the outline of a happy childhood.”
However, this is not the end for the reader because now, we are just not sure what to do or how to react. Is this why the whole novel was “fiction”? This is the childhood she wished she had experienced? Or is this a statement about how her childhood really wasn’t happy? I guess we’ll never know.