Reading the Expository Memoir in “Almost Brown” – Chicago Review of Books


In the mid-1950s, my great-uncle was a young Indian physicist in the United States, where he met and married a white Catholic woman from Boston. They were married for over sixty years, with three children and numerous grandchildren, and lived happily until both passed in their late eighties, within two years of each other. Many people have stories like this in their lineage, an unlikely love resulting in new identities and revised definitions of traditional family. In her memoir Almost Brown, writer Charlotte Gill brings to life a story not unlike this one, but with a fair share of bitterness and tragedy woven into the tale. And while her story, which spans multiple countries and countless decades, is intriguing on the surface, the composition and craft of this memoir ultimately hold it back from the high bar set by other memoirs of fraught families.

Gill opens her memoir with a nuanced portrait of her father, now at an older age. We see him geriatric, a retired physician, still active and enamored with finer things and luxurious clothes. Their relationship feels warm and familial on the page, and at the end of chapter one, we are told that “for twenty years we did not talk at all.” This opening is intriguing, vivid, and serves as a promising introduction, but ultimately we witness very few scenes like this. Indeed, the memoir suffers from a dearth of scenes at all. Gill takes us through broad stretches of time and packs the memoir with summaries of her various years in the UK, America, and Canada. We are told of her mother’s hardscrabble nature and efforts to become a physician, her bullies in school, and various other aspects of life that call her identity into question, but the key here is that we are told. The balance of scene and summary in Almost Brown is heavily skewed towards summary, to the point where we assemble facts and details about the Gill family, but no real visual narrative. It is as if we are at arm’s length from the actual goings-on and have been told through the grapevine of their various personalities, but have not truly witnessed a day in the life. In her efforts to cover broad strokes of time, we see few events as more significant than any other. 

As the memoir continues, Gill delivers on the promise of the title, examining her waning relationship to her Indian heritage as her relationship with her strict father deteriorates. She describes shying away from him on the street, feeling reluctant to hold his hand, and attributing this solely to their difficult relationship. Over time, she connects this to internalized hatred of her marginalized identity, being half-Indian and therefore different from her peers. She delves into this further, being disconnected from her Indian family due to estrangement, and her father’s relative ignorance of much of his Punjabi culture. These aspects of the memoir are well told and carry the narrative forward, but Gill only scratches the surface by leaving most of this in summary as well. We breeze through these early events and, by comparison, get a play-by-play account of Gill’s adult self, reconnecting with her father. The end result is a question of framing. Why is the present shown in scene, while the creation and dissolution of her interracial family is relegated to summary? Is such classification inherently flawed? While the answer is no, it does leave a number of lingering questions and fails to make an emotional impact. 

Ultimately, Almost Brown is a thorough, careful portrait of a complex family, but what the reader consumes feels overbroad and lacking in its interior and sensory detail. And while conveying scenes from the distant past can lean into fiction, such liberties are often necessary to create a vivid emotional tapestry.

See Also

Almost Brown
By Charlotte Gill
Crown Publishing Group
Published June 6, 2023

Malavika Praseed

Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms


Source link