Book review

‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

An Extract from the opening is available here.

This is the beautiful and shocking memoir of a woman who grew up in a difficult family situation, but escaped (in every sense of the word) through education. She lost a lot in the process, but gained a tremendous amount as well, although it’s heart-breaking that she had to make that choice at all.

The book opens with a prologue, which sets the scene through an evocative description of the location where most of the story takes place, at har family home in rural Idaho. The mountain that rises up above her family’s farm is personified as an Indian Princess – a motif that appears throughout the book. Ironically, it’s Westover’s ‘traditional’ father who named the mountain – a man who believes that women belong in the home, and not in formal education – yet the Princess’ appearance is described as being strong and warrior-like. The Princess changes with the seasons, and her meaning changes for the author as well as she grows and learns. Initially, she is viewed as the defender of all those who live in the valley; later, the author imagines her as full of wrath; but by the end of the book she realises the Princess is a benevolent mother who wants her children to be part of the wider world, and loves them regardless of their choices.

The prologue is written in the present tense, which indicates that a strong sensory memory is being recounted. The author uses present tense elsewhere to achieve a similar effect. I like the use of present and past tense – the mixture creates texture, and highlights the memories of certain events. This represents how memory works: some memories are stronger, especially those at the beginning and end of a journey or phase of life. Westover notes several times that her recollections are wrong, or may not be entirely accurate, but states that she describes events as she remembers them – this is an important acknowledgement for any memoir writer; memories are affected by what happens later, and by our changing understanding of events.

The story is divided into three parts, representing the different phases of the author’s life. Events are generally told in chronological order, with digressions to explore meanings, link to other memories and events, and provide exposition. One of the key issues Westover experiences is that her family is unwilling to allow her to have freedom from them, and this is illustrated through her focus on ‘home’, even when she’s almost five-thousand miles away. The pull of home is so strong that depictions of university life in Utah, Cambridge, and Paris are muted in comparison, and have a dreamlike and fleeting quality. Although these were actually significant periods in her life, the further from ‘home’ Westover travels in space and time the more time is compressed. These techniques reflect the increasing mental turmoil she experiences. For me, the focus on ‘home’ and her early life does not create an unbalanced feeling in the book, and does not leave me feeling unsatisfied as a reader; the story is about her family, her self-discovery, and her acceptance of the past – the reader does not need to be told anything about her life in-between these things in order to understand the story.

Westover’s honesty is poignant. She admits to initial ignorance in matters such as hygiene (not washing her hands after using the bathroom), and world events and history (the holocaust and civil rights movement), and to struggling with her attitude towards females who wore short skirts or didn’t view Sunday as a day of rest. In line with the honesty, so many shocking incidents are recounted – there are frequent horrific accidents that happen to her family members, and Westover experiences physical abuse at the hands of her brother. There were many times that I swore aloud as I read these incidents; I was rooting for Westover to leave, to be safe, to be free. I know I’m enjoying a book when I simultaneously do and don’t want to read it, because I don’t want it to end; this is how I felt reading ‘Educated’.

Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no happy endings. In creative nonfiction, I think endings are harder – where does the story end? In this book, it ends with Westover achieving some degree of resolution, and a return ‘home’, but her story is not over and never will be.

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