Reviewed by Brian Watson
I was tempted to warn them: not all my reviews are effusive. One author made a point of sending me an e-mail to point out what they considered errors in my perception of their work, for example. But the title of this book intrigued me. Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s Halfway From Home: Essays (Split Lip Press 2022) reminds me of the limbo I sometimes experience in the now nearly forty years since I graduated high school and left home. The limbo I particularly felt in places as different from Nyack, N.Y., where I grew up, as they could be: Tōkyō and British Columbia to name just two. Even my current home outside of Seattle bears few reminders of my childhood on the Hudson.
I also wondered if the person requesting my review did it for a specific reason: I surmised, incorrectly I believe, that the author was as queer as I am. But my assumptions faded as I started pawing through this incredible book.
A memoir-in-essays has always struck me as sadistically challenging. That you could write about disparate things at disparate times and then, later, magically draw a thematic river through them exceeds my more placid writing abilities. I have seen it done masterfully before. I still rave about Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing, for example.
Where Halfway From Home excels, however, is in the artful variation of essay formats. Some are unitary, with a single theme masterfully explored, deeply informed by geological, historical, and even entomological research. The first chapter, “Excavation,” is one such unitary essay. Gratefully, you are introduced quickly to the delicate, pointillistic quality of the author’s writing. Sentences like the following gave me shivers: The house rumbles, guttural, like digestion.
Other chapters are braided, weaving complicated yet clear paths amid two, three, or more different lines of memory’s inquiry. “In Search of Nostalgia” is one such chapter, and when the author veers away from her own childhood (with sentences like When I was happy, I was also sad because every good thing had to end. and phrases like we love how the earth gives way beneath us because we aren’t afraid yet to fall) to explore the medical history of nostalgia, as far back as 1688, I nodded with pleasure. Obsessing over memories of home, Hofer posited, drew spirits to certain areas of the brain, leaving gray matter elsewhere deprived until vital functions slowed and eventually ceased.
A clang of recognition—reminding of my break with binaries to embrace more of my queerness—reverberated when I read, in a chapter called “Lessons in Cartography,” the following:
I used to like my compass rose with just the four base parts, none of these intermediate directions. But the older I get, the more I need something intermediary when things don’t go according to plan—or more importantly, when what I desire is not easily governed.
This chapter contained most of my highlighting. The author is at her poetic best with phrases like watercoloring through time, I stared at the ceiling and rolled sentences over in my mouth like bright berries, and mosquitoes rhyming along with the sound. And it is also this chapter where I began to more completely appreciate the author’s commitment to research as she explores not only the different types of maps there are in the world, but the very history of cartography, too.
“Carve” is another masterfully braided chapter, weaving scrimshaw and trauma, sand dollars and sadness, the sea and grief. And to imagine both how to survive when your weapon is a wanting and the puka I wore as a child, the dead dangling from my throat, brought writing envy to my lips in the form of a sly smile within a nodding head.
If I am to be allowed one dissatisfaction with this incredible book, it must lie within the unresolved cliffhanger at the end of “Taking Stock.” The outcome is implicit, of course, and it is churlish to want to see the tittle for every last i, but though I recognize my unrepentant childishness, how can I complain when the preceding chapter, Tumble, gave me I keep my voice silent which means good which means stay which means please love me. I’m still shivering at the beauty and deep empathy there.
Let me conclude with the smallest of details that pounded off the page at me in the middle of the chapter “In Praise of the Plains.” The author outguesses me with a single letter, changing grit to grip within The Plains require grip…. To evade a cliché that evokes the authentic Frontier gibberish that Mel Brooks poked fun at was masterful. And, of course, grip is the more accurate, more powerful word. Modern business classes love to gesture at concepts like resilience and grit, but grip is truer. Grip is tenacity and strength and in the face of the many challenges, personal, political, and environmental, that the author speaks to within Halfway From Home, and I sense that it is grip that might yet carry us through. That grip might yet tether us to a reality worth embracing, if even to drag it to a relieving halt.