Book: Bad Blood: A Memoir

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Bad Blood: A Memoir

Author: Lorna Sage
Publisher: William Morrow & Company

Lorna Sage’s adventure in autobiography is a searing and funny anatomy of three marriages that brings to life her girlhood in postwar provincial Britain. Her early childhood was dominated by her brilliant, bitter grandfather, a drinker, a womanizer, a vicar, exiled to a remote village on the Welsh borders. His wife loathed him, lived on memories, and shook her fist at any parishioner bold enough to call at the house. From the vicarage Lorna watched the fading away of the old world and the slow dissolve of her grandparents’ disastrous Union.

Then her father returns from the army and she moves with her parents and baby brother into a newly built house. Living with her parents, she quickly learns that the world is full of secrets and myths that mark her family—her mother’s thwarted dreams, her father’s addiction to work, and the mysterious emotional economy of their proper marriage. Longing to leave, Lorna vows she will never marry of have children, but before long she finds herself having grown up far too fast.

From the memories of her family and of the wounds they inflicted on one another, she tells an extraordinary tale of thwarted love, failed religion, and the salvation she found in books. As a portrait of a family and a young girl’s place in it, it is unsurpassed.


Nobody’s unhappy family was ever quite like that of Lorna Sage, whose ruthlessly funny, excruciating, inspiring memoir Bad Blood won England’s Whitbread Biography Award. She grew up in the ‘40s on the Welsh border, in the crossfire between her grandparents, a bitter, bibulous, bookish vicar resembling Jack Sprat and his short, “fat doll” of an ignorant wife. He preached earthy sermons about how one might prefer for a wife “Martha before dinner, Mary after dinner.” His wife’s “notion of marriage [was] that a man signed you up to have his wicked way with you and should spend the rest of his life paying through the nose.” Grandma blackmailed the vicar with his diary of adultery, in which she scribbled vicious comments invaluable to the family historian. She gobbled sweets; he drank, fumed, and helped make Lorna Sage a noted literary critic. There is much more: the vicar’s affair with his daughter’s school chum, the cosmic impact of Bill Haley and his Comets, Lorna’s precocious pregnancy, and the strange way lives ricochet and echo each other. Sage manages to give her rural upbringing a brooding Gothic poignance and the comic force of Cold Comfort Farm. She describes a moment after her grandfather’s death in the vicarage, “where everything seemed to be wearing thin and getting see-through, as though a spell were dissolving.” But the shades of her clan won’t quite fade, and thanks to this book, they’re here to stay. —Tim Appelo

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