Verdict: Brilliant but near unbearable to read.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Published by Bloomsbury, October 2018
In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.
Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.
In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.
A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family that begins with a confusing childhood—and continues through twenty-five years of haunting implosions and long reverberations.
I find this memoir near impossible to review for a number of reasons:
- the book was near impossible to read for me;
- the book is brilliant;
- the book is not written for me.
If you only take one thing from my review, let it be this: Kiese Laymon is utterly, utterly brilliant. On a simple sentence by sentence level his writing is absolutely stunning, it wrecked me in the perfection of his prose. But even more so, the structure of this memoir is impeccable and the way he tells his story and makes is points is just brilliant. I read very many memoirs but it is rare that I have a reaction as visceral as I had here. The whole book is a lesson in how to gut your reader with your words. And I mean this in the best possible way (and the worst: it took me forever to finish this because I needed to take breaks to read something else).
Laymon tells the story of his body – and how his relationship to his body is influenced by his difficult relationship to his mother. The way he grounds his experiences in the way his body reacted to them added a layer to this memoir that I appreciated immensely. Written in second person narration addressing his mum, Laymon lays it all bare for the world to see. Especially the first and last chapters really drove home how incredible his craft is and how deep the cuts his life made are. I found the book near unbearable in the claustrophobia of the unfairness of it all: the unfairness of racism, of poverty, of eating disorder, of addiction. The book is this successful because it is written for black people rather than about black people – a point Laymon makes at various points throughout the book, something he learned from his mother and his own mistakes.
Ultimately this is an intimate love/hate letter to the most important person in his life and I feel very grateful to have been able to read this.