“The trouble with abuse of any kind is that until you can claim it, it claims you.”
At the age of seven, Barbara witnesses a frightening incident between her parents. She goes on to spend much of her childhood toggling between the happy family she longs for and the unhappy one she’s in but can’t repair. Disturbed by the smell of rotting leaves and an uneasy feeling about her father, she will spend half her life trying to get to the bottom of the reasons why.
As an adult, a summer in Africa allows Barbara to live without labels—wife, mother, daughter, sister—and become the woman she wants to be: funny, compassionate, complex, and often flawed. The Red Kitchen is the story of both Barbara and her mother, who, like many women, both spend much of their lives surrendering to society’s expectation to be one thing while yearning to be another. Ultimately, both women—in very different ways—come of age, find the loving parts of their mother-daughter relationship, and start living their best lives.
“I wasn’t dying from anything; I was out of life.”
I have always found it exciting to meet new personalities in the characters I read in fiction. It has only been in recent years that I’ve realized that real stories of real people can be even more exciting and insightful. That is why when Barbara Clarke’s team reached out to gift me a copy of her new memoir The Red Kitchen I was only too happy to accept.
“We come into the world loving our parents until we discover they’re flawed.”
A few pages in and I swear I was hooked. I loved Clarke’s voice and how she started her book in a quiet and lovely tone that reminded me of that neighborhood from Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Clarke takes us to a red kitchen from her childhood– truly a shade of color that can either be described as passionate or menacing and in this scenario proved to be both. In a place where one expects to be fed and nourished, Clarke takes us to that moment of betrayal in her mother’s red kitchen, where all she felt as a little girl was confusion and trauma.
“The more she revealed the more I was struck by the difference one generation can make.”
Reading this memoir really felt like living another person’s life. It is more detailed and felt longer than any other memoir I’ve read so far, which can be a good thing or not depending on the reader. As for me, though I could understand her struggles as a woman living in a predominantly male society in the 1950s-80s, Clarke is obviously very white and very privileged (her Dad just buys cars and houses out of the blue) and so I honestly couldn’t sympathize with some of the other conflicts in her life. (There are also some borderline racist comments that reflect the outdated thinking of those times. These did not go unacknowledged by the author but I feel I have to mention it because these elements might be a bit unsettling to potential readers.) I had to really keep an open mind and it proved to be worth it. If anything, Clarke’s account of her family life just proves that money and privilege is not a sure formula for a happy and peaceful home.
“…for the first time in my life, I was without my familiar labels: daughter whose parents lived two doors away, sister, mother of two teenagers, and wife.”
The author’s days in Kenya were lovely, though sometimes it honestly made me uncomfortable looking through the narrator’s privileged eyes. As I read, I just want to know more about the indigenous culture and the community. I can hardly blame the author for this limited perspective but I am still left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Be that as it may, I’m happy that her volunteering journey teaches the value of going outside of one’s norm to learn about and truly understand the world and its people.
“Our rages, hers, so devastating to me as a child, and mine to my kids when I couldn’t stuff any more down, came from the same place—being powerless.”
Clarke touched on a lot of subjects in this memoir: domestic trauma and abuse, racism, feminism, gender and sexuality, health insurance industry, sexism, and child grooming. I admit there are moments that I was overwhelmed. I’m glad that the latter parts dealt with her reconnection with her mother because it was the kind of catharsis that I needed. Mother and child relationships are seldom simple. I think it’s the tragedy of every parent and child, that you can only truly understand each other in retrospect. Only a very few get to love each other without conflict, and even fewer gets the chance to rediscover each other. As for Clarke’s relationship with her father, I really don’t know what to say. It’s the hardest part to read for me and I can’t say anything further about it because it is not my story to tell. I have much respect to the author for having the kindest and bravest of hearts to move forward from that kind of trauma.
“This was how I’d lived my life—pleasing someone who wanted something from me.”
“I wondered if my future would forever be determined by past mistakes, always racing to catch up.”
I am so inspired by Barbara Clarke’s continued pursuit of her dream of becoming a writer and I am grateful that she did. The Red Kitchen is a long and intimate journey with Clarke taking us to an immersive experience of an audacious woman’s life fully lived (from late 1940s to early 2000s!!) It shows the different kinds of people we could be in a single lifetime. Here’s a story where we can be comforted that no matter how confusing things are for us right now, we will learn more wisdom as we get older and things will eventually make sense. Though we are products of our upbringing, there is nothing to stop our reinvention if we aim for it.
“Was I a victim? How I hated that disempowering word and how it left a person without agency. But I wasn’t comfortable with the word survivor either. Not yet, maybe never.“
I know I am just one of the million possible readers of this book, and that this blog review is just one of many. But Barbara/Bunny, if you are reading this, please know that to me you are a survivor. You have succeeded and you are thriving in the life you have created and fought for yourself and your daughters.
It’s always harder to review or “rate” memoirs because this is a real person’s life we are talking about. All I can say for sure is that I admire Barbara Clarke’s honesty and candidness. She has looked back at her life and chose to share her learnings, and that to me is something of an honor to receive. This memoir reminded me I should live my life in a way I would enjoy reading about when it’s my time to go.
About the Author
Barbara Clarke has received many labels through the years, some unwanted: “Best Body” in the ninth grade and “ex-wife” twice. In midlife she worked in Kenya and later developed her career as an executive, and has moved over sixty times. A mailperson once told her that she held the local record for the most forwarding labels of someone not fleeing the law—three. And most recently she was given a label she treasures—earned in a class developing this memoir—“Most likely to start a forgiveness movement.” You can find out more about her varied career as a writer and read her blog at www. barbaraclarke.net.
The Red Kitchen (A Memoir) by Barbara Clarke
Published April 6th 2021 by She Writes Press
Genre: Nonfiction | Memoir