Book Review | The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Image: Picture of a single breast and the words "The Chronology of Water: A memoir" by Lidia Yukanavitch

Book Review | The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Book Review: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water


“Some people say words can’t ‘happen’ to you. I say they can.”

Boy do Lidia Yuknavitch’s words happen to you. Tumbling its way through a topography of sex and violence—trauma and love—her acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water hasn’t lost any of its impact in the years since it was published. With a film adaptation in the works, it’s time to renew the hype. If this book slipped by your radar, you’ve got to pick up a copy while there’s still time to read it before seeing the movie. If you’ve read it before, you should read it again. You don’t have to take my word for how good it is—it has won awards and received many very positive reviews.

With a bare breast on the cover, even before the gutpunch of its opening “The day my daughter was stillborn,” the book challenges taboo, refusing to varnish any truths—as long as you do as I did and peel off the cover band, an enormous grey censor-bar of paper stuck down with clear retail stickytack. If you’d be ashamed to read a book with a big ol’ tiddy on the front in public, this may not be the memoir for you—or it may be just the memoir you need.

When it came out in 2011, The Chronology of Water exploded conventional notions of what a memoir could be, opening the field for the rest of us. Like a mosaic composed from the remains of something precious shattered in anger, this book is built of small cupfuls of narrative, of many different colors—a series of short, individually titled sections pounding runaway train one into the next until you look up and realize you’ve finished the book. It’s impossible to stop after just one more. Yuknavitch brings a self-awareness, a careful attention to form, creating a reflection of grief’s “endless patterns and repetitions accompanying your thoughtlessness, as if to say let go of that other more linear story, with its beginning, middle, and end, with its transcendent end, let go, we are the poem, we have come miles of life, we have survived this far to tell you, go on, go on.” Anything but thoughtless, this less linear story takes us through miles of life and tells us how to go on. It needn’t wait for the end to feel transcendent.

I’m not alone in being an Oregonian thrilled to claim Yuknavitch as one of our own. A significant portion of the book is set in Oregon, and Yuknavitch successfully captures the vibrant, pulsing love we tend to feel for this place, with its “perfect drizzle of home.” Her rich depiction of Oregon, its forests, coasts, and rain, reads to me like it burst from my own heart. That magic of corporeal empathetic response runs throughout Yuknavitch’s prose, at times blisteringly, in-your-face vulgar, and at others quietly poignant and profound.

The sexuality in the book is blunt and shockingly honest, certainly titillating, “a girl bomb in her panties” and probably yours. But “sexuality is an entire continent,” Yuknavitch tells us, and as warm as your face—and perhaps other parts—might be while reading, the shape of this continent begins to emerge through the steam of eroticism, showing us things we have felt and not wanted to look at, seen but been unable to see. Don’t get me wrong, this book is frankly sexual and frankly hot—“I got the motherloving juice spanked out of my pussy until the bed flooded”—but the sexuality carries a vital spiritual and physical energy and so much insight it’s a little scary. “All the crucibles of my life were now available across the surface of my own body,” Yuknavitch tells us, being transformed or transforming herself through intense, psychologically fascinating sadomasochistic play. Yuknavitch navigates for us a startling path through trauma recovery, through finding or making a place for ourselves. As she begins to heal, it’s through her pain, with it; as she says, “Like my wounds had something in them besides hurt.” That something fuels the book and reaches out to grab the reader, pulling us along and out of the woods.

Unsurprisingly, words and writing have a large thematic presence—“It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body.”—juxtaposed brilliantly with the bodily. “The body doesn’t lie. But when we bring language to the body, isn’t it always already an act of fiction? With its delightfully designed composition and color saturations and graphic patterns? Its style and vantage point? Its insistence on the mind’s powerful force of recollection in the face of the raw and brutal fact that the only witness was the body?”

It’s hard to imagine how this secret, bodily, yet carefully composed witness will be captured on film by Kristen Stewart—did I mention queer icon and absolute babe Kristen Stewart is writing and directing?—though I’m sure the adaptation is going to bring its own angle on the material. With KStew at the helm, I anticipate Yuknavitch’s vibrance, pathos, and eroticism to translate to the screen with the same face-punching, pussy-spanking intensity that’s alive on the page.


Phoebe Merten is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English at Chapman University, the natural followup to her BFA in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Lighting Design. She writes poetry and prose and tends to disregard the distinction between the two. She prefers precise and loving use of language, with each word collected and fondled like a jewel. Her current projects of varied genre focus on love, connection, and the inherent dangers therein.


Featured Image: provided by Phoebe Merten – personal copy of The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

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