Articles/Essays – Volume 53, No. 3

Beauty in the Irreversible Lisa Van Orman Hadley. Irreversible Things

Judging by its length, Irreversible Things is the kind of book that I should have been able to finish in a couple hours. Perhaps one evening, after the kids had gone to bed, I could curl up on the couch for a quick, light read with some hot chocolate. It is small enough to easily fit in my purse to read in snatches while commuting or waiting in the doctor’s office. Like its narrator, however, Irreversible Things demands to be read slowly. No, perhaps “demands” is the wrong word—rather, this book sits down next to you, softly puts its hands on your knee and says, in a gentle Floridian accent, “Wait honey, I don’t think you heard me right. Try reading that bit again.” It took me weeks to finish this book because I kept pausing to catch my breath, rereading and rediscovering passages and savoring a language that is heartbreakingly simple and poetic.

Shortly into the book, styled as a collection of autobiographical short vignettes narrated by the author’s younger self, the titular chapter “Irreversible Things” opens with the sound of cicadas. As a born-and-raised southerner myself, I remember being a child and listening to the rhythmic wailing of thousands of bugs as my father explained to me that I wouldn’t hear this again for seventeen years. I remember, in that moment, feeling a terrible sadness as I tried to listen to every song, to hear each insect, and with each buzzing decrescendo I wondered, “Is this the last? Is it over?” Lisa Van Orman Hadley beautifully recreates that desire to hold onto something even as it disappears with simple, everyday childhood stories that are infused with urgency—she compels us to notice the texture of thermals, sweatpants, and jeans all layered to keep out the cold (82), the chill as the night air switches “from summer to autumn overnight” (62), and the familiarity of your very own chair (114). Van Orman Hadley invites you into her home without tidying up first, allowing you to see that the messes are the most beautiful part. Each family member and friend is portrayed with a perfect mix of childhood innocence and honesty; when her mother complains that in every story she is a “complete idiot,” Van Orman Hadley fittingly responds, “But the mother is my favorite character!” (135).

Just like her characters, Van Orman Hadley allows her narrator to be flawed. She deftly maneuvers the difficulties of the memoir genre by creating a narrator whose tone matures as the book progresses but who never loses her identity. This can be frustrating as a reader, especially when, for example, the childhood narrator recalls the tragic murder of their neighbor but does so in the context of missing cats, cicadas, and first crushes. I wanted to know more about her neighbor, I wanted to make sure the kids were safe, I wanted, in short, a news article. This was the first moment when Van Orman Hadley asked me, gently, to read it again. As I went back and reread the passages, paying attention to the inverted timeline and the sounds and smells and images that infused her writing, I realized that this is not a book about her life events but rather a book about her life. Van Orman Hadley is refreshingly frank about the unreliability of her narrator—in one memorable section she admits that she does not recall the events surrounding the discovery that her grandmother wore a wig. She then invites the reader to explore this memory in a chose-your-own-adventure fashion, allowing you to build your own chain of memories and choose which story you like best. While at first glance this may seem playful or even kitschy, it does the important critical work of reminding the reader that every story in this memoir is chosen and crafted, and even that we ourselves choose our own memories and build the narratives that surround our lives.

As I sit in the middle of my life, I think about the narratives I’ve built, the messes I’ve made, and the distorted timelines that run backward and forward in my mind. Irreversible Things reminds me that life is not an irreversible series of events that stack from birth to death but rather an existence that is constantly redefined by overlapping experiences. Lisa Van Orman Hadley has created here a kaleidoscope of memories that come together to form a new and ever-changing picture of her life. This was an absolutely delightful read, and I sincerely hope to see more from her.

Lisa Van Orman Hadley. Irreversible Things. Minneapolis: Howling Bird Press, 2019. 153 pp. Paper: $18.00. ISBN: 978-0-9961952-5-6.

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