I knew nothing about Jackie Kay before opening this book, so it was a bit of a leap in the dark. She writes poetry, it turns out, and has obviously attracted some attention with it because she has an MBE. But this book is not about her writing, it's about how she was adopted and came to find her natural parents. Not that there's much to say about that - they never really become three dimensional, glimpsed in rather fraught occasional meetings in their old age. But if the central focus of the book is a little hazy, the decorative curlicues around the edges, the snippets of life with her adoptive parents, are what bring the story to vivid life, rich with humour and deep affection.
To be honest, I often wonder with a book of this type just why the author decided to write it. Fiction and poetry I can understand - there's a desire to tell a story, to create something new and original, to say something. But a memoir? Why would an author think these little vignettes from an ordinary life, however well written, would be interesting? Is it catharsis? It's clear that meeting her birth parents was a traumatic experience, on both sides, so maybe Kay felt the need for some kind of release, a kind of blood-letting, or perhaps a way of packaging it all up neatly into something small and manageable like a book, so it can be tidily shelved away. But what exactly do all her friends and relations (long-standing or newly discovered) feel to be written about in this tell-all way - the family's secrets spread out in the open for people like me to maul and comment on and make judgments about.
Maybe the author intended it partly as a celebration of her adoptive parents. Certainly the contrast with her birth parents could hardly be more stark, and makes their own eccentricities (they were active socialists and atheists) seem trivial and positively benign by comparison. It is also clear that, whatever the emotional ups and downs and physical difficulties involved in meeting her birth family, and however great her euphoria when things went well, it was always her adoptive parents who grounded her, and formed the solid bedrock of her life.
This is not a particularly original book, in many ways. There are many other works written by people tracing their roots and finding out surprising things about themselves and their families. There are many other works about the experience of being black or lesbian or adopted. Some of them are far more profound or moving than this one. Kay had, after all, a fairly sheltered upbringing in a loving family. Nevertheless, however lightweight the subject matter, Kay's writing skills shine through, and there's enough humour and charm here to make the book an interesting, if not compelling, read. Three stars.