To Throw Away Unopened review: Viv Albertine’s eye-watering honesty
Sinéad Gleeson on the former Slits guitarist’s excavation of the lives of her parents
Viv Albertine: she has learnt invincibility, never losing sight of the edge she had in her youthful punk days. Photograph: Kevin Cummins/Getty
To Throw Away Unopened
Faber & Faber
In her memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys the former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine took the familiar template of the music biography and deconstructed it, shaping it into a new object.
The book dispensed with groupie cliches and gossipy reveals in favour of something more impactful and moving. In recounting the early days of punk in London, Albertine created a work of social geography and cultural class consciousness.
Examining the economic and architectural grimness of late-1970s and early-1980s London, it stared into the eye of privilege and sexism. But the book was about so much more than society or music, and the raw accounts of her body – cancer, IVF, childbirth – hinted that Albertine was not a one-subject writer. Her ferocity and insight were carried along by her ease with words.
Amid present-day furious vignettes of bad men, bad dating and bad bodies, Albertine inches back to the past
If Albertine’s ire then was focused on public or systemic targets, To Throw Away Unopened presents a more private kind of despair, the rage that emanates from family conflict; the unease its proximities can set in motion.
Parents may instil a sense Larkinian f**ked-upness in their offspring, and it is their dual, complicated lives that cast a troubled shadow here. Lucien, Albertine’s brutish Corsican father, left when she and her sister, Pascale, were young. His departure, although much welcomed, puts additional financial and emotional pressure on the trio.
At the book’s centre is the impact of intergenerational hurt; of how actions seemingly removed from our lives intersect. “Truth is splintered,” Albertine declares, in a possible explanation of the book’s structure. Amid present-day furious vignettes of bad men, bad dating and bad bodies, Albertine inches back to the past: to poverty, violence and the toxicity of her parents’ relationship. The main narrative is regularly interrupted by a linear account of the night her mother, Kath, dies, one that is far from the tranquil, united bedside ensemble of popular culture: she and Pascale get into a physical fight as her mother’s breath starts to slow. The night erupts, for multiple reasons, many of them located in the past.
Albertine’s eye-watering honesty, about everything from sex and shitting to the people who make and unmake us, is the engine of this book. It’s a declaration of both love and war
The book’s title is based on two posthumous discoveries: both parents left behind diaries. Her mother’s (touchingly kept in an old Aer Lingus bag) has To Throw Away – Unopened written on it, the “un” underlined. Albertine swings between both accounts of their divorce, attempting to reframe her own view of her parents. It is stark and uncomfortable: who wants to know if their parents are unreliable narrators? One of the most harrowing reveals is of another child, and of Kath’s powerlessness, despite the feminism she always displayed to her daughters. Albertine breadcrumbs quotes throughout the book, from Emily Dickinson to Warsan Shire, folding their words over her own experiences. Recalling Gloria Steinem’s line about how daughters live out the unlived lives of their mothers, she realises how much Kath achieved as a woman of her generation. How class, marriage and male dominance restricted the lives of so many women.
No feeling is ever just one thing. Albertine grapples with the inherent contradictions of love and loyalty. Her eye-watering honesty, about everything from sex and shitting to the people who make and unmake us, is the engine of this book. It’s a declaration of both love and war. The continuance of life, the patterns we avoid and replicate, how each experience stays in our molecules. Albertine’s own daughter has shown her how to be, when the life she lived for decades was hindered by who she wasn’t.
Past traumas drop deep anchors, abutting the present-day reality of a life, but Albertine has made compelling art out of what lies beneath
Many women feel more invisible when they’re older, and Albertine writes searingly about loneliness: “It’s one of the consequences of the path I chose: to be creative in a society that didn’t support female artists.” But she has also learnt invincibility, never losing sight of the edge she had in her youthful punk days with The Slits. In the not too distant past she attends a talk by the Russian activists Pussy Riot on prison and protest. On the bus home she confronts a rude man, determined that she will not be obliterated. “I have no one and nothing to lean on. And I think that’s exciting.”
Experience causes Albertine to wryly note: “Never believe what’s written on a gravestone: ‘loving wife, mother and daughter.’ ” In excavating the lives of her parents this musician has re-evaluated not just herself but also the triangulated relationships between people connected by blood. Past traumas drop deep anchors, abutting the present-day reality of a life, but Albertine has made compelling art out of what lies beneath, and is heading for a new horizon.