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book review

Cea Sunrise Person returns to the personal essay in her new memoir, Nearly Normal, a collection of short vignettes that shift in time and space.Sarah Jane

A few years ago, Cea Sunrise Person published a memoir called North of Normal.

The book, which chronicled her unusual childhood in the wilderness of northern Alberta, was an unexpected bestseller.

So it's little surprise that Person, three years later, has returned with a something that could be regarded as a sequel.

Nearly Normal: Surviving the Wilderness, My Family and Myself, is, ostensibly, the continuation of the author's story, or perhaps the deepening of it. Told in short vignettes that shift in time and space – from her childhood in the wilderness to her career as a model to her two marriages and motherhood, right up to the present day – the book includes a number of the stories that didn't make it into the first volume. Many of them are difficult – substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse, the rote bleakness of a disconnected marriage – and, taken together, they form something between a B-sides collection and an Awfullest Hits album.

As an essayist, I have a great empathy for authors who write about themselves, especially if they return to the source material – i.e., their own life – for multiple books. While working on my second collection of essays, I frequently experienced a deep gratitude to my past self that I hadn't simply attempted a chronology of my life in my first book. Even still, I spent hour upon hour trying to strike the balance between making the new book a completely satisfying stand-alone read while not boring return visitors half to death with recapitulations of concepts and stories from the first volume.

Person's best gifts as a writer are her memory, her knack for knowing when to dig down into the finer details of a scene, and when to pull back. In that way, Nearly Normal plays to her strengths. She mines scents and wallpaper patterns and even the distinctive quality of certain kinds of pain to bring the reader fully into a specific time and place.

While her talent in making a single moment real and compelling is significant, the book itself judders along in fits and starts. Nearly Normal has no single plot line to carry it, and a general theme (of looking again at the past and understanding it afresh) that begins to coalesce and express itself rather too late in the book for my taste. I found myself just barely getting comfortable in Santa Fe of 2007 or Florence of 1995 or Kootenay Plains of 1977 (among many others), only to be dumped into a different decade or continent with little sense of resolution.

By the end of the book, when Person begins to draw the narratives together, it's through a series of chapters that deal with the aftermath of her first book. She describes wrestling with how much to reveal and deciding that some things needed to be left out. This is all well and good, but I heartily wish her editor had encouraged her to lead with some of this information, to contextualize the new book as an excavation of the previous one. Knowing that the reading experience would be akin to an archeological dig, with memories being unearthed, examined, before digging down further into the past, might have eased the growing sense of "Where are we going?" that I experienced while reading the book.

On the other hand, that emotional experience rather significantly mirrors Person's life from birth to her mid-30s, as far as I can tell. Her tolerance for the unknown and for inconsistent revelation is certainly greater than that of most other humans. If writing is the alchemy of turning feelings into words that eventually make a distant human experience the same feelings, Nearly Normal is an absolute success. I felt irritable and discombobulated often in reading – not because the writing wasn't just fine (it was), not because the vignettes weren't well framed (they were), but because none of the pieces I was being handed seemed to fit together. Eventually, like Person, I made some meaning out of them but I wished (perhaps also like Person) that I had been given something a little less like a handful of still-perfectly-good fruits and a little more like a pie.

S. Bear Bergman is the author of six books and founder of the children's book publisher Flamingo Rampant.

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