In what has already been an extraordinary career, Kathryn Harrison has produced seven transportive novels and eight striking books of nonfiction — including her still-controversial 1997 memoir, "The Kiss,” about the affair she had in her early 20s with her long-estranged father. One of the wonders of her new memoir, "On Sunset,” a touching and at times jaw-dropping portrait of the maternal grandparents who raised her, is that she’s only getting to this rich material now. For many writers, it would have been the starting point.
Harrison has written about her unusual family and Los Angeles childhood before, but never in such specific — and fascinating — detail. Aspects of her family history have filtered into her fiction, beginning with her first novel, “Thicker Than Water,” in which she first broached the subject of incest. The influence of her grandparents’ formative years in Shanghai and Alaska is evident in her novels "The Binding Chair” and "The Seal Wife,” while the germ of “Enchantments” can be traced — at least in part — to her grandmother’s stories of traveling from the Far East to England for boarding school on the Trans-Siberian Express, which ran through post-revolutionary Yekaterinburg, where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed.
Harrison’s grandmother is a wonderful character, fabulous enough to seed several books. Margaret Esme Sassoon Benjamin was born in 1899 into a dynasty of merchant princes from Baghdad, rich Sephardic Jews who had a knack for “turning money into money.” One branch of the Sassoon family made a killing — dirty money — in the opium trade. “Next to — and east of — the Rothschilds, they were the richest Jews in the world,” Harrison writes. Harrison’s branch, eventually led by her great-grandfather — who reversed his two last names, Benjamin and Sassoon, to distinguish him from similarly named relatives — amassed a smaller but less tainted fortune in China, selling rubber and rice futures. His Shanghai household employed 50 servants.
In contrast, Harrison’s grandfather, Harry Jacobs, was raised in London by his struggling widowed mother, who took in boarders after his father died of consumption at 29. Harry had a head for figures, but not for making money, and possessed little tolerance for indoor jobs. After years as a surveyor and engineer in Talkeetna, Alaska, he returned to Europe to fight in World War I and ended up a traveling salesman in California. In 1941, the 51-year-old widower met Harrison’s grandmother not long after she immigrated to Los Angeles to escape the Nazis. She was still unwed at 42, though not for lack of suitors — a story unto itself.
By the time Harrison was born, in 1961, to her flighty, improvident teenage mother, Carole, money was so tight that the “museum-quality plunder” from her grandmother’s youth had to be sold to pay the taxes and upkeep on their midcentury house on Sunset Boulevard. (Harrison’s father, who was long gone from her life, is barely mentioned in this book; he reappeared when Harrison was in her early 20s.) “Our financial collapse is schizophrenic. We are desperately poor, and I lack for nothing,” Harrison writes. She had new bikes, ballet lessons, professionally laundered and monogrammed bed linens, fancy dresses from Rodeo Drive — and yet the family saved up for a toaster with Blue Chip trading stamps. Money worries were another source of insecurity for a little girl abandoned by her parents and apprehensive that her beloved grandfather was old enough to die.
Harrison paints a vivid picture of an anachronistic childhood in which “The Brady Bunch,” Barbies, peanut butter and sliced bread were out, while curtsies, cod liver oil, Marmite and liverwurst on little rounds of baguettes were in. The vocabulary was British — sweaters were jumpers, washcloths were flannels. Bedtime, one of many non-negotiables, was at seven. Harrison’s grandparents treated her like “an unexpected late-life child, an obedient younger sister to balance out the misdeeds of the older one,” Harrison writes. “I am both my mother’s worst mistake come to life, and the one expected to redeem what’s too late to undo.”
As a child, Harrison constantly prodded her grandparents to repeat and amplify stories about their youth. She recognized early that her grandmother was not a reliable source of information. Her sweet grandfather was far more accommodating. “Tell me about a penny,” she asked him. “Say what you bought with one penny.” And, shifting topics, “Tell me them again.” “Tell you what again?” “The jobs, all the jobs you had in London.” Harrison writes appreciatively, “He never says it’s silly to ask him to recite what I already know.”
What emerges is a poignant portrait of a smart, anxious young girl who is eager to please and hungry for connection, confirmation and security. Already showing signs of “strange fancies” and an incipient eating disorder, she sought family history to anchor her, even if it pinned her “to a time and place other than my own.”
Impressively, “On Sunset” — richly illustrated with photographs and personal documents — adds up to more than just sepia-tinged nostalgia for a world on which the sun set long ago. Like Francine du Plessix Gray’s memoir of her parents, “Them,” and Vikram Seth’s "Two Lives,” it’s an evocative record of unusual lives and loves that — disrupted by war and anti-Semitism — spanned continents and left their mark on subsequent generations.
By Kathryn Harrison
Doubleday. 266 pp. $27
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.