I am really excited to share my thoughts on this moving and beautifully written memoir by Lenka Janiurek. Many thanks to Emma at Damp Pebbles for my spot on the blog tour, and to Emma Finnigan and Allison and Busby for providing me with a proof copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Lenka Janiurek’s story really begins with the death of her mother when she was nine. She is the daughter of a Polish immigrant father, and one of eight children. Across the years she is plagued by the rage, addiction and despair of the controlling men she is closest to. This memoir grapples with identity, of trying to find a place in a world and within a family, that don’t feel like your own.
This remarkable story from the 1960s to the present day, describes the loss of her mother to her relationships with 2 stepmothers, early success as a playwright, extensive travel, and encounters with both extreme wealth and poverty. Throughout Lenka explores and celebrates the beauty and tragedy of living life to the full.
Watermarks is a stunning evocation of alienation, searching, and the restorative power of nature.
Truth, the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction, and one of the main things that struck me about Lenka Janiurek’s compelling memoir is what an utterly unique journey she has had. If this were a novel, you might begin to think that no protagonist could undergo so many transformative experiences, both painful and healing, but the depth of emotion and honesty that Janiurek reveals in this remarkable story could only come through lived experience. The other thing that is clear from the outset of the book is her talent with words. Her prose style is lean and supple, and wonderfully descriptive, and I was drawn in right from the opening passages. The use of the present tense creates a sense not so much of remembering but of reliving, and it is immensely powerful. I was captivated by her story, following Lenka through her life as she negotiates the ebbs and flows of her curious and difficult path, immersed in her beautiful words.
There are many different elements to Lenka’s story, and I don’t want to divulge too much information in this review, as one of the joys of reading a memoir by someone whose life story is not common knowledge is discovering its twists and turns for yourself. Suffice it to say that plenty happens in this book: childhood loss, early success, unhappy relationships, travel, motherhood, spiritual and artistic exploration – the list goes on. I doubt Janiurek ever had the problem that many of us would encounter on considering whether to write our memoirs: “But what on earth would I write about?”
Losing her mother at such a young age is obviously a pivotal moment for Lenka, but what follows is far from a universal story of grief. The idiosyncracies of her scattered upbringing are brought to life through the disorientating but effective jumps in time and location that occur in the spaces between the chapters. This technique creates the sense of rootlessness, of contradictions, and a kind of desperate searching that seems to me to be at the heart of her book. She veers between places and situations in a way that reminded me of theatrical scene changes: when the lights come up on the stage of each new chapter, we are often in entirely new surroundings. From lavish country mansions to basic lodgings, from luxury to only the necessities, Lenka’s story is one of contrasts. The one constant is swimming: water is her element, it is where she feels most at home, and her descriptions of wild swimming in beautiful locations are stunning.
While the narrative drifts in an almost dream-like way from location to location, it is rooted by Janiurek’s sharp, clear-eyed prose. Her language is spare and piercing; the nouns anchor her descriptions in reality: stones, water, buildings, places. As a reader, I felt as if I was seeing through her eyes, which is surely the sign of an incredibly effective memoir. There is a raw honesty here that is brave and deeply moving, but it is tempered by what I came to see as a really strong sense of respect, both for herself and for others: whether she is grappling with her spiritual side (which she approaches with a dose of cynicism, even as she joins a guru in India and free-thinking camps of hippie artists) or examining her fraught relationships with troubled men, it is her story she is telling, not that of her family members or her destructive partners. This is emphasised by the fact that the men in her life are referred to euphemistically, as ‘the tall man’ and so on; the story is not about them, it is about her, and she never attempts to infer the thoughts or feelings of others. There is nothing intrusive about this memoir in terms of those surrounding her – even the men who might seem to deserve harsher treatment in the narrative are not given that power over her story, and this left me full of admiration in ways that I am still thinking about.
Watermarks is an appropriately immersive experience; a dive into a bright, original consciousness whose lived experiences are uniquely and beautifully described. It was a pleasure to see the world through Lenka’s eyes, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in exploring different ways of being. It is a thoughtful, honest, at times almost meditative book, and it had a profound impact on me as a reader. I am grateful that she chose to share her incredible story.
About Lenka Janiurek:
LENKA JANIUREK was born in York. At the age of 17 she won the prestigious Young Writer’s Competition at the Royal Court Theatre and subsequently had three plays on at the Royal Court Theatre, a platform play at the National Theatre, and one at the Other Place with the RSC in Stratford-on-Avon. She has facilitated workshops in writing, drama, art and well-being, in schools, colleges, at camps, and in a women’s prison. And worked as a baker, fundraiser, caretaker, green builder and researcher. She has four children. She lives close to the sea in Wales.