Surviving The Silence of Life in Suburbia
The Weight of Silence is a coming-of-age memoir peopled with familiar character types (alcoholic father, emotionally dangerous teenage crush) and covering all the expected big adolescent moments (first period,first kiss, first sex). Despite this, it never feels tired or cliched. Catherine Therese's skilful narration - which includes dottings of poetry, streams of consciousness and flashes forward and back through time - defamiliarises the ordinary, providing the reader with fresh insight into adolescence, family life and the difficulty of choosing who to be.
Catherine Therese is one of four daughters growing up in Sydney's western suburbs in the late 1970s. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother is in constant denial, the neighbour is - quite literally - murderous and her sisters are convinced that Catherine is stark raving mad. This "madness" is actually -just a bad temper combined with a tendency to express her feelings in a family that favours silence and changing the subject. By her early teens, Catherine has learnt to keep most of her thoughts to herself, but this only increases her anxiety. Most 13 year olds fear that they'll be exposed as being uncool and abnormal, but young Catherine's fears are far more specific than that. She lives in terror of the day that everyone will discover that she is actually "a hated, maybe leso, teddylover, budgie-cutter, hair pulling, fob pocket postcard robber, prickly armed, delusional uncle poacher. . . That this seems - in context - a perfectly reasonable description, should give you an idea of the manic energy of both the child and the adult writer she grows into.
The young Catherine is also constantly anxious over her father. She learns early that his terrible drunken nights must never be mentioned in the sober light of day, because to do so would cause embarrassment. The idea that embarrassment is worse than the thing or person causing it becomes so deeply embedded in her psyche that when a man on the train gropes her she is too embarrassed to tell him to stop. Still, even the most unpleasant memories of her father are suffused with empathy and love. When her dad is drunk with his pants around his ankles, Catherine notes that his singlet is tucked into his undies - proof "that when he dressed this morning he started the day with better intentions than this". The undies themselves are a reminder that there's a ''woman who loves him enough to scrub them out tomorrow".
It's easy to understand where this compassion comes from. Love and friendship flows between siblings and parents, shown through nicknames and untranslatable private jokes embodied in phrases meaningless to anyone outside of the family rather than through direct expressions of love and solidarity.
The relationship between Catherine and her sisters is beautifully drawn and there's a real sense of sadness as, one by one, they go through puberty and lose the intense physical connection only available to children. "Ever since fear of what bits we might accidentally brush against replaced killer instinct, the girls and I had grown out of our ruthless wrestling ..." Therese writes. "With no one to punch, pinch or kick I couldn't trust what my body did next." It's not long before she finds another physical outlet,however. At a school dance she meets Arnold, a sexy juvenile delinquent with an "uncley" name. He walks "like he was being towed, reluctantly, by what was between his legs" and Therese falls for him fast: "Instant gravy, microwave quick; the first time I looked into his old sepia eyes it was already too late".
And so it is that this clever, ambitious Catholic school girl finds herself pregnant at 16. Arnold generously provides $20 for an abortion, but Therese fritters it away on ham and coleslaw sandwiches and spends the next six or seven months hiding behind magazines and desks. The habit of denial is amazingly strong.
A warning here: if you're planning on giving birth to a baby anytime soon (or, actually, ever) you might want to skip the long, descriptive, traumatic labour scene. If childbirth is not on the cards or you've been there, done that, then read it and weep. I mean that literally: it is, like the real thing, messy and painful and, in the end, incredibly, tear jerkingly wonderful.
At this point, I should admit that my enjoyment of Catherine Therese's story was increased by the fact that I, too, was once a nerdy, rebellious high-school dropout in the western suburbs of Sydney. But I'm confident I would have loved the The Weight of Silence even without the extra element of demographic and psychological identification. It's a heartfelt, funny and deeply moving memoir about flawed families, unconditional love and growing up too fast but turning out okay anyway.
Reviews for The Weight of Silence
- AUSTRALIAN BOOKSELLER & PUBLISHER MAGAZINE ..."This is a special memoir. It is written with great feeling, imagination, humour and originality, and shows a writer with a distinct view of the world within and around her."
- AUSTRALIAN WOMEN'S WEEKLY ....Recommended read ... " A moving and funny childhood memoir ....timeless."
- BETTER READ THAN DEAD --- Bookshop... " Catherine Therese puts her childhood memories on display in this raw, moving and at times hilarious account of her younger life. This book is well written and unique, and touches on issues that are easily identifiable with us all. The natural curiosity of a growing girl never makes for a dull story and if at times you need a breather from the back streets of Blacktown, just close the pages and stare at the front cover! What an image. I loved this biography."
- BIG W ENTERTAINMENT... 5 STARS ..." Stunning, heartbreaking, book, that deserves multiple readings. I have never read such a revealing portrayal of childhood. Therese uses the language we think in not speak and as such this gem of a book is an utter revelation. It is beautifully , hauntingly written. As soon as I finished it I started again. Genius."
- CANBERRA TIMES...Emily Maguire '...Its a hearfelt, funny and deeeply moving memoir about flawed families, unconditional love and growing up too fast but turning out okay anyway.'
- CHRIS BURGESS ---- Leading Edge --- " The Weight of Silence is without doubt one of the most exciting and exceptional Australian debuts of recent years. Describing it as a ‘memoir’ hardly does justice to the imagination, verve and freedom expressed in this strikingly original work. At a surface level it is the story of Catherine Therese’s childhood and early teens growing up with her rather unusual family in the western suburbs of Sydney. At a deeper level it takes the reader deep within the experience of a difficult family life in a way that is challenging, funny, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring. This is ‘stream of consciousness’ writing without literary pretension. Raw, honest and incredibly imaginative, I loved it. "
- DI MORRISSEY... Author..." This book is SO moving...just beautiful.
- FRANKIE MAGAZINE..." Guys like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs have given the term ‘memoir’ a swift kick up the arse and now we can add Catherine Therese to the list."
- GOOD READING MAGAZINE...' 5 STARS Outstanding. Catherine Therese's first book is one of the most compelling childhood memoirs I have ever read . Often it seems as if she is just throwing down whatever thoughts are inside her head down on paper. This unique writing style using prose and poetic verse reminds me a little of Augesten Burroughs. It's an unforgettable book that will remind you of many childhood stories that have never been told.
- MADISON MAGAZINE..." This memoir is a bouquet of dark humour laced with heartbreak and the kind of suburban detail to which we can all relate. Therese has crafted a coming of age reminiscence populated by wonderful characters and suffused with unblinking honesty... A highly worthwhile read from a sharp new Australian voice. "
- MANLY DAILY ..." This is a brave memoir that successfully engages the voice of Therese as a child and teenage narrator.It is a beautifully written chameleon of a book dotted with pint sized poems that sometimes befuddle, sometimes dazzle.It will perform its way into your heart and mind, then quietly turn itself inside out and reveal its secrets before rushing headlong into the final pages that will leave you holding your breath. A courageous debut.
- NICK TATE ---- Actor --- " Catherine Therese has written a stunning autobiography, an extraordinary book. She truly is a one off, a delightful, funny, quirky painfully honest young woman; this is one very brave, courageous, talented writer, one we are going to hear a great deal more from. I have no doubt that this book will take Australia by storm. "
- PETER BISHOP --- Creative Director Varuna ---- " This is a book of deep, sacred dignity and the highest literary skill and imagination. The story comes to life through acute observation and detail and a unique voice and beautiful writing; an impressionistic style, a quivering, shimmering presence; a vitalitythat gives one a sense that there may be another way of living, of looking at the world. "
- READINGS--- Melbourne --- " Catherine Therese’s family all describe her as ‘unusual’ (pronounced ‘un-you-sual’). In this unique memoir, she tells us of her pride in having an outie belly button, being greedy for choosing the names of two saints and seeing her first doodle courtesy of the naughty grandson next door. Despite being laugh-out-loud funny, the underlying theme is much more serious. The irony of her father’s alcoholism and verbal abuse, with her mother and sisters never daring to mention his appalling behaviour due to the fear of embarrassing him, is at turns painfully funny and incredibly sad. First kisses, shallow school friendships and a dodgy boyfriend occupy her teen years as the family silences grow and the deceptions increase. The birth of her son is relentlessly depicted via the madness of free verse, highlighting the horrors of contractions and impending parenthood. Therese generously allows us a glimpse into her tortured but uniquely creative soul and her eventual redemption."
- SALVATION ARMY WARCRY MAGAZINE...." 4 1/2 STARS Excellent and highly amusing memoir of life in Oz in the ’60s and ’70s. A coming of age saga that will give you equal cause to laugh and cry. Creatively written.'
- VOGUE MAGAZINE ..." A bittersweet remembrance of things past and dark suburban secrets."