The Richmond Review

book review   


      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

The Liar’s Club
Mary Karr

The Liar’s Club
Mary Karr
London 1995

Merchandise Links

UK Edition:

US Edition:

Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club springs from that American tradition of fine memoirs of awful yet fondly remembered childhoods – it comes with an endorsement from Tobias Wolff, and it also calls to mind Mona Simpson’s autobiographical novels. It’s an unflinchingly honest book and, with affection, eloquence and wit, it recreates aspects of all our childhoods – and the adults who can fulfill our dreams, or fail us.

Mary Karr grew up in the sixties in Leechfield, a swampy Texas oil town best known for hurricanes, mosquitos and the manufacture of Agent Orange. Her wild and unconventional family stands in stark contrast to more respectable God-fearing neighbours, whose children Mary delights in outraging. Some of the more warmly drawn scenes in the book involve Mary’s father who works at the refinery and is active in the union. He regularly hangs out with his fellow oil workers at the American Legion Bar, competing to tell the tallest tale in Texas as he shoots the breeze with other members of the Liar’s Club. In doing so he earns a permanent place in Mary’s heart as champion mythmaker, and she has evidently inherited his talent as an extravagant storyteller.

Her mother, who fancies herself as a sort of ‘bohemian Scarlett O’Hara’, never fits into town life; not only has she been to art school in New York but she is ‘nervous’ and inclined to heavy drinking binges. Mary’s mother’s breakdowns and long, drawn-out shouting matches between the parents occupy a central role in this book and in Mary’s childhood. They are vividly described in horrible detail, picturing the hurt of the child who can see and feel but barely understand.

Other demons surface. A mean and puritanical grandmother comes to stay to die of cancer, leaving behind gruesome memories of a slow and painful (and odorous) death. While there she plagues Mary and her sister Lecia with endless spiteful demands. At the age of seven Mary is sexually assaulted by an older neighbourhood boy who she thought was just a playmate. A couple of years later, when her parents separate and she moves to Colorado, she is forced to perform oral sex on an unnamed, but not forgotten babysitter.

The strength of The Liar’s Club lies in such moments, which are recalled without self-pity and with such power that you almost feel that you’re there, shirking from the awful smell of Grandma’s breath, trying to understand why a man is peeing in your mouth. It’s here that Mary Karr succeeds in reaching out to all our childhoods – the happy times and the sad, the curiosity and the guilt and the shame of the no-longer innocent. I found The Liar’s Club a little disappointing in comparison to This Boy’s Life, as it lacks the single narrative thrust of that book’s search for escape, but when you reach the end, and share with the grown-up Mary the discovery of her mother’s secret history, you are moved by the honesty and love of this moment.

Reviewed by Andrew Wille


Search The Richmond Review

Enter email address and Subscribe for updates

Product finder

Browse our network:

Visit The Big Bookshop


The Richmond Review

Copyright © 1995/2003 The Richmond Review