The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison

Some time ago, a friend recommended Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, sure I would like it. She was right – it’s a book that I still think about. The same friend recently lent me The Gin Closet, Jamison’s debut novel – how could I not want to read it with a title as good as that?!

The Gin Closet focuses on two characters – Tilly (Matilda), a woman who has lived hard, is estranged from her family and crippled by her alcohol addiction; and Stella, Tilly’s niece, who learns of Tilly’s existence when her grandmother dies.

“Matilda could be an actress by now, or a poet or a waitress or a bank teller or simply a suburban mother, quietly stupendous.”

Dissatisfied with her life in New York, Stella decides to go in search of Tilly, and finds her living in a trailer in Nevada. Her brother observes –

“You’ve always been terrible at your own life… You’re so greedy for everyone else’s.”

Stella and Tilly, both with nothing to lose, move to San Francisco where they attempt to make a home with Abe, Tilly’s overworked and elusive son.

There is a precision to Jamison’s writing that I admire. Small, seemingly inconsequential details reveal so much about each character – Tilly’s collection of ceramic cat figurines, neatly displayed despite the piles of empty bottles filling her trailer; Abe’s unpacked moving boxes; Stella’s intense observations about other people’s bodies – as the story progresses you understand how much Jamison is saying about these fragile people.

“Every part of my mother was thin, down to her fingers. She looked like she was about to split along a thousand secret fissures.”

“Alice and I had eating disorders at the same time in college and shared them like an extracurricular, the way some people share cocaine or volleyball.”

This book is the literary equivalent of a train wreck waiting to happen. You can’t help but read with a sense of foreboding, the characters ripe for self-destruction. And when it comes you don’t lay blame simply because Jamison has so carefully and tentatively won you over with the characters’ vulnerabilities.

3/5 Grim and not a great advertisement for gin* but well written.

“I could smell the gin between her words like punctuation marks.”


*my very favourite gin is The Botanist.

13 responses

  1. How do you feel about reading a ‘train wreck’? I get invested in the main character and feel like I am going down with them. Yes, I know, I like happy endings. Perhaps if I was drinking gin I would feel it less …

    • I don’t seek out train-wrecks but I don’t mind reading them (if done well). In this instance, the writer cleverly pulls you in before you realise that it’s a train wreck ahead – by the time I saw where things were going, I was invested (and drinking gin!).

  2. Pingback: Gin-lit (it’s a thing) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  3. “You’ve always been terrible at your own life… You’re so greedy for everyone else’s.”

    I would argue that we’ve all felt this way at one time or another, perhaps on a smaller scale, though. If we hate our bodies because we haven’t “disciplined” them properly, we envy those who work out incessantly. If we see someone with a great job, we assume that we aren’t as smart or hard-working as the other person. It all comes down to us feeling like we’re terrible at our own lives. Now, should someone else say I’m terrible at my life…well! that’s a different story.

    • Agree, it’s an interesting quote. In this case it was about a character who had had a number of issues – health, relationship, couldn’t hold a job – always taking on ‘basket-cases’ – the point being, sort out your own affairs before you get involved in others. I guess sometimes it’s easier to deal with others problems rather than your own, particularly when the ‘others’ allow it.

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