Confessions with a lightness of touch, a revelry in caricature
Keggie Carew is propelled by a spirit of wanderlust, a voracious appetite for excitement, new experiences
In Quicksand Tales, Keggie Carew’s knack for memoir is trained on her own (mis)adventures. Here is a collection of short essays concerned with, as the preface has it, “Making a hash of it. Being human. The tripwires of our hasty conclusions, our fixed ideas, our contradictions in thinking, our tribal prejudices, our base selves.”
Quicksand Tales: The Misadventures of Keggie Carew
Keggie Carew’s is a life, it would appear, governed by Sod’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will.” Quicksand Tales: The Misadventures of Keggie Carew is composed of a selection of egregious and amusing manifestations of this dictum – from a road trip made unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, to a particularly disastrous dinner party.
Carew’s debut, Dadland (2016), received the Costa Biography Award for its insightful and poignant reflections on her father’s career as a member of the Allied forces during the second World War. In Quicksand Tales, her knack for memoir is trained on her own (mis)adventures. Here is a collection of short essays concerned with, as the preface has it, “Making a hash of it. Being human. The tripwires of our hasty conclusions, our fixed ideas, our contradictions in thinking, our tribal prejudices, our base selves.”
Its author is propelled by a spirit of wanderlust, a voracious appetite for excitement, new experiences – and so we hurtle with her from city to city, continent to continent: from the United States to Ireland, Tunisia to India. Rarely are the stakes higher than in opening piece The Late Visitor, which recounts a teenage ramble across North America, culminating in a terrifying campsite encounter at Lake Tahoe with a mercenary who, alarmingly, tells the young Carew and her friend Ian that he’s named “Animal”, before taking a shine to their cooking knife.
Companion to Carew through the remainder of her trials and tribulations is her New Zealander husband Jonathan, and the story of how their relationship blossoms is one of the book’s most charming anecdotes. After a chance meeting at London’s Jacob’s Street Film Studios, they’re married within a few weeks “for the exhilarating madness of it”, sped along by the looming threat of his work permit running out. One is reminded of the whirlwind romance between the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano singer Galina Vishnevskaya, who married within four days of meeting. (When questioned, some 50 years later, about their haste, Rostropovich replied that his only regret was the three days he’d wasted.)
The newlyweds decide to move, for a time, to Jonathan’s home country – a chance for Carew to get acquainted with her in-laws – and her ensuing search for work as a waitress is fodder for one of the book’s most squirm-inducingly colourful episodes. While her husband settles into a job in the kitchen of Warwick Brown, celebrity chef, Carew fumbles her way through a series of gigs, topping up champagne with water, and mixing up orders (“Each bill had some kind of discrepancy, the items were wrong, the total was wrong”). Her blunders mightn’t make her flavour of the month with her employers, but they’re a hit with Jonathan’s team when she meets them for end-of-service beers. She “regale[s] them with every gruesome detail”, to “squeals of horror and roars of delight”.
Quicksand Tales is animated by Carew’s gift for storytelling; a lightness of touch is coupled with a revelry in caricature, when the occasion calls for it. Owing to its conversational, confessional tone, reading this book feels like being drawn into the confidence of a hapless friend (the kind that might open a call with the greeting, “You’ll never guess what’s happened now”). On the whole, this approach is endearing. It’s difficult not to root for the narrator when, for example, she arrives in the countryside alive with “Plans of arbours and gazebos and shimmering mirrors of water with lilies and autumn leaves floating on them”, of living her own version of the good life. Difficult too, not to share in her dismay when the decidedly less glamorous realities of country living dawn. Or to relate to her bemusement and cynicism when participating in a weekend workshop for a “giant site-specific theatre event”, the gentle absurdity of which she gleefully sends up.
Yet the pose can grate at times. The Anticipated Celebration details the getaway that Carew and her husband “once called The Birthday Weekend” but “now call The Birthday Debacle”; they’ve opted for a stay in a fancy hotel “with robes in each room and Molton Brown soap dispensers”, but the establishment’s rap sheet soon fills with, “a very small kipper”, lukewarm milk and a rude host, in a section which fails to provoke much sympathy. The author is at pains to expose “over-fed white middle-class anxieties”, but I felt that these could have been more thoroughly interrogated. Still, Quicksand Tales is vibrant and entertaining, sure to inspire a healthy dose of schadenfreude in its readers.