A review of The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison
Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
May 8th, 1997
By Kathryn Harrison
Random House, $20
Books about incest can be a troublesome lot. Seen by some critics as gratuitous attempts at selling to the talk-show constituency, books that expose the sins of the father are often attacked as sensationalist. Novelist and short story writer Charles Baxter complained that Jane Smiley’s use of incest in A Thousand Acres cheapened the novel, but he was probably just mad at her for criticizing Shadow Play, his novel from the same year. And with Smiley’s novel beating out Baxter’s for the Pulitzer Prize (and a wider audience), his accusations—along with those of the more conservative critical echelon—seem a bit suspect.
The truth is that incest is far more common—and complicated—than many critics like to believe. It’s not just some device writers use to sell books; it’s a hard fact, and like any other disturbing aspect of modern life, it needs to be openly dealt with in the literary world. But it’s still tricky. And trickier still is when the book is non-fiction. Smiley uses incest to explicate the relationships between her novel’s characters, but when it’s real, and is the focus of the book, how are writers—and reader—to approach it?
Novelist Kathryn Harrison tackles this enormous task with her new memoir The Kiss. Roughly dividing the book into two parts, Harrison writes her life story leading up to and then following the decisive moment of her young life, when her father first kisses her. The division recalls how Vladimir Nabokov contrasted Lolita’s psychotically beautiful before-half with its psychotically ugly after-half. But this time we get the girl’s—or rather the woman’s—point of view: Harrison is twenty years old when her father initiates their affair.
Harrison keeps the narrative tight, with enough family background to give the book texture but not so much that it loses its focus. She grows up with her maternal grandparents after her parents’ brief marriage and divorce. Her mother lives with them sometimes, but she’s a fleeting, maddening figure. Her father, a minister, relocates after the divorce, remarries, and raises another family in another part of the country. Harrison is vague with names and places, never mentioning her father’s—and hence her own—last name. She writes on the book’s copyright page that Harrison is her married name (she’s married to novelist Colin Harrison) and that she “has not used her maiden name in a number of years.”
Despite its anonymity, The Kiss is razor sharp in its depiction of her family’s dysfunctionality. Harrison only meets her father twice in childhood—at age five and age ten—and with her mother floating in and out, Harrison never gets the affection of a real parent. Even worse, she gets teased by her mother’s proximity without ever getting to connect with her.
So when the twenty-year-old Harrison, a brainy, insecure college student, finally gets to spend time with her father, she finds in him a father figure she never had. The two are nearly mirror images of each other, and they bond instantly. But her father cannot separate their newfound filial love from the carnal passion he feels for the beautiful woman his daughter has become. Using all the power he has—a creepy combination of the intellectual, the theological, and the fatherly—he breaks down all her defenses, beginning an affair that virtually shatters Harrison’s young personality.
But The Kiss is far from a sob story. It describes a terrifying event, but ultimately the books is about redemption. It’s about a woman rebuilding herself, reclaiming herself from the past she won’t allow herself to forget. Not so much a book charting a recovery as it is a reclamation of memory, The Kiss asserts itself as one of the most powerful memoirs in years.