In graduate school I had a friend whose father’s affluence protected her from the need to work. She enjoyed many summer vacations living abroad at various language schools.
The day finally came, however, when she faced the need to take on a 50-weeks-a-year, nine-to-five office job, one to which she commuted every day by train. I saw her after a few months of the new routine and she looked pale and shaken. “Ordinary people,” she whispered to me, gripping my arm as though she were confiding a hard-won and painful truth. “Ordinary people are heroes.”
I thought about my friend a number of times as I was reading Janine Di Giovanni’s memoir Ghosts By Daylight. Di Giovanni is a writer who spent many years as a war correspondent. Chaos, destruction, and peril became as normal to her as putting out the garbage on trash night is to the rest of us.
But when Di Giovanni finally decided to settle down and try a quiet domestic life as a mother and a wife – that was when the terror hit her.
It all began – fittingly, in the context of Di Giovanni’s life – in a war zone. She met her husband – Bruno, a French photographer – during the siege of Sarajevo. They flirted, fell in love, and then proceeded to drive each other crazy.
Over the course of “many years and a dozen wars” there are “endless phone calls, three miscarriages, much of what the French call malentendu, breakups, a breakdown, and a lot of alcohol” played out against the backdrop of “several fallen cities, countless rebel armies ... and frenzied meetings in Dakar and Tora Bora.”
Finally, however, these two moths who have by now spent several years circling multiple flames and each other, decide that what they really want is matrimony and a child.
There, Di Giovanni discovers a disturbing truth: “I was not afraid when I was in the middle of chaos. It was real life with its vast responsibilities and wells of insecurities that frightened me.” Ordinary domestic life, she realizes “is a foreign country, the strangest one that I had ever visited,”
Di Giovanni is a graceful writer, blessed with the kind of lucid prose that might trick readers into imagining that penning a compelling memoir would be easy. Her skilfull blending of the lovely (“My first street in Paris smelled of yeast: of baking bread, of cakes”) with the gritty (her husband’s alcoholism, the disintegration of their marriage) gives her book a very authentic kind of texture (not unlike that of another of my favorite titles released this year: “Blood, Bones, and Butter,” the superb culinary memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton.)
In the end, Di Giovanni must face the fact that she and Bruno may never be, as author Isabel Allende puts it, “the kind of people who fit under the umbrella.” But given the courage and clarity that she displays throughout her memoir, the truth may be that the world needs Di Giovanni just as she is.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.