I wouldn’t describe out and out memoir as a mainstay of my reading ‘diet’. That said, when I do turn to the genre, I’m reminded of how much there is to learn from those with a different experience and perspective. A brave and skilled writer of memoir takes the reader beyond their intimate tale and into moments of insight. Caro Giles shows in Twelve Moons that she has the bravery and skill to deliver such insight, whether very directly or more subtly.
One such moment comes in a chapter which ostensibly screams ‘Keep Out!’ to a late-middle-aged father like me. Deep into ‘Mother’s Moon’, a chapter which deals with the challenging issues of perceived outsider status and OCD tendencies, the author describes herself looking at extended families on their day trip to Bamburgh. I’ve visited that Northumbrian coastal village several times, making it a scene I can envisage easily. Flying solo in her parenting of a quartet of school-age daughters, she feels herself invisible to the hordes of more regular – I use that term nervously – families. With her supposed invisibility cloak on, she studies these ‘others’ and silently poses the penetrating question ‘What is your tragedy, I wonder?’
For all that my personal situation is superficially very different from this now single mother, my immediate response to this question was to identify with her thinking. It felt like a pivotal moment in my reading of the memoir. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, given my decades of considering the output of Euripides and Sophocles. But the resonance went far deeper than that, hummed more strongly than my shared sense of being an outsider. Given the marital ‘tragedy’ that Giles has so recently experienced – and which accounts for the extraordinary rawness of her memoir, it was the tenderness of her follow-up question that spoke to me even more profoundly. She asks a question that is at once born from her trauma and midwifed by her considerable powers of empathy: ‘Is your heart smashed to a pulp?’.
It's in the posing of this question that the author’s nature seems to become crystallised. The very asking of it surely forestalls any lazy accusation that this is the memoir of a self-obsessed and fully weaponed ‘warrior’ mother. Yes, she uses that military term later in the same passage, but only in assumption of how some view her. Yes, she must show warrior-like characteristics just to get through life on her own with a demanding tribe (and with Covid a constant threat), but the tenderness implied in this question explains why she hasn’t been completely worn down by the daily grind. In Twelve Moons the reader learns about determination and an extraordinary focus on what really matters, when faced with a sink or swim family breakdown. What the reader does not do is meet an embittered woman on a single-track revenge mission – of the sort we meet in various Greek tragedies.
A memoir moves to a higher level of meaning when it goes beyond the unique circumstances of the individual and resonates across a wide front – informing a range of readers about their own experience. In the case of Twelve Moons this applies to any of us who have found ourselves on the metaphorical floor, bruised or even battered by the trauma of, say, burnout, loss or separation. Giles’s honest and remarkably plain-spoken appraisal of her separation and its aftermath gives us permission to explore our own trauma; it speaks directly to anyone who has had to renew or reassemble themselves.
A great triumph of Twelve Moons, as I see it, is that it transcends definition as a ‘female’ book and applies to all who have needed to win an internal battle and preside over their own rebirth. For all the dominance of the female and, to some extent, the feminist in this story, I’d recommend it for men too. This may come as a surprise. After all, what could be – on the face of it – more feminine, sisterly and womanly than an account written by a mother who found herself in unexpected and splendid isolation, looking after a quartet of daughters, and in a phase when a pandemic kept the world shut out? Even the title Twelve Moons, with so many lunar goddesses being female and the Latin root of moon suggesting ‘menstrual’, implies anything but a manly read. I found much more common ground and common cause with Giles than I expected: elements of my own recovery from a harrowing period; finding a way through life as an outsider of sorts; experience of struggle against soulless and unimaginative institutions; undiluted love for my children that means I am always in their corner.
What does Twelve Moons offer for those who don’t feel a shared experience with the author? A great deal, I would say, but I’ll focus on just one aspect which I, a nature writer, found particularly appealing. Giles weaves beautiful patterns in her descriptions of the wild places and creatures close to her Northumberland home. She made me realise how long I have neglected the beaches and rocky outcrops of the glorious stretch between Holy Island and Craster. She also took me – it felt like a personal treat to be reminded – to places such as Glenridding, North Berwick and Weardale, presenting them with restrained lyricism. Her descriptions of the natural world are in tune with her story, because she never shies away from the hard truths. I sensed the workings of powerful allegory on several occasions: the beautiful kestrel killed on the road; a dead greylag goose; more upliftingly, the trapped pigeon that is eventually saved. I’m sure a second reading would reveal more.
Twelve Moons turned out to be much more of a celebration of the human and natural spheres than I expected it to be, with the moon cycles the glue that holds these together. It’s just as remarkable for its elegiac nature as it is for its candour, and Giles somehow achieves a level of sensitivity in her account that belies being at the centre of such life-shattering events. A story that could so easily have been told bitterly is made tender. Within the intimate lies the universal, and through peeling away the layers of her story, the author puts an arm around those who’ve had to retreat, reset, and reorder their life. The book’s strap line is ‘A Year Under a Shared Sky’: the sharing goes well beyond Giles’s cherished tribe.
Twelve Moons: A year under a shared sky by Caro Giles and published by Harper North, is available HERE
Header Image: Caro Giles (Fiona Saxton Photography)