What do you remember? What do you choose to forget? Author Jeannine Ouellette describes The Part That Burns as “a memoir in fragments.” That’s an accurate assessment of the way memory works. (Think back on your own childhood. Do you remember the scenes that had an emotional impact on you? Do you sense that the day-to-day memories have faded? Have you embellished or rewritten any scenes from your life?)
Ouellette records the memorable scenes of her life as she remembers them, creating an exquisite patchwork of people, places, and dogs. Her family includes Mama, a younger sister named Rachel, Daddy Jack, a step-dad named Mafia, several boyfriends, a husband, and a daughter. Her family travels from Duluth to Wyoming to other locations, and she starts her story with the family dogs and the memories they bring up. The dogs, the daddies, and her shifting relationships with Mama and Rachel are all part of a time-line that shifts back and forth as she remembers new levels of misunderstanding and abuse.
Readers will appreciate that as the story goes deeper as we watch her cope with the dysfunction caused by poverty, an unstable mother, shifting father figures, sexual frustrations, and the love her daughter brings.
The author writes in vivid poetic prose. Talking about her daughter Sophie, Ouellette says:
Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another stuffed toy she will drag with her everywhere, clenching it in her baby fists whenever she screams in fear or sadness or pain, soaring through the air with it as she jumps from a swing at the highest possible point in the July sky, stuffing it into her backpack as she skulks off to high school on a bad day, locking herself away with it, broken, when her first love leaves her.
The love she never felt from her parents blossoms as she cares for her daughter.
No one is perfect, of course. “Sometimes Sophie bites.” Like life, an astute reader might say. Life is a series of opposites, a fact the author confirms when she states, “The part that burns is the part that glows.” Good and bad, power and weakness, courage and fear all compete for attention.
The conclusion, written by the author and her daughter in alternating voices, confirms that opposites not only exist but also attract one another. Life is complex, and her beautifully rendered story confirms this. It’s a short, immediate, and powerful account of coming to terms with what life has dealt you and how you handle it. Both Jeannine Ouellette and her daughter Lillian Ouellette-Howitz are authors worth watching.
The book will be released in February of 2021 by Split Lip Press, but good literary citizens can pre-order, which is a boost for the author and the publisher.