In Judith Kitchen’s genre-bending memoir, Half in Shade, fragments of history become the occasion for lyrical speculations on the passing of time – and rare moments captured in fleeting light. Many of these fragments are photographs, which Kitchen loves for their limits. What lies outside the frame? What is tellingly absent? What happened to the scar on aunt Margaret’s cheek? Or to great-uncle Carl’s clubfoot, hidden as an infant by his enormous christening dress?
Her memoir moves according to an associative logic, like a detective story told by a wild and poetical Watson. The mystery, in this case, concerns the nature of family. Kitchen’s meditations swirl toward revelations of submerged links, the hidden affinities that mark a geneology. She mirrors those links in her prose, deploying subtle puns that produce novel ways of seeing.
The story of her family is also the story of herself. And her story becomes urgent as she becomes seriously ill, twice, in the process of completing her book. These illnesses come as intermissions, shattered meditations on mortality, and a final, musical essay. They lead Kitchen to recognize that life, like photographs, is about radical limitation. “Limit yourself,” she writes, “to the letters that came to you, filed in your left-hand drawer. To the gifts you’ve been given – the boxes and baskets and stones from the beach, and the faded, ethereal flowers. Limit yourself to the tangible” (63).
Kitchen’s memoir reads, throughout, like these overheard thoughts. They are the thoughts of an aging woman torn between the limits of the present moment and what she calls her “infernal urge toward retrospection” (91). She cannot leave the past alone. She struggles to understand her dead mother through the evidence of journeys long finished. She digs up the detritus of old floods.
As the memoir spirals toward its end, it loosens its associative logic. The leaps become greater, the links harder to follow, as if on the rush to say it all, Kitchen realizes how much will forever remain unsaid. Still, while fighting against the inevitability of the world’s danger, she focuses on those fleeting moments when the world is vividly alive, when what might have been could have been, before, finally, everything is beautifully broken.