Review – ‘Violence|Joy|Chaos’ by Jane Marshall Fleming

I purchased a copy of this book from the publisher.

In Violence|Joy|Chaos, Jane Marshall Fleming takes memoir writing to a new place. This collection of essays and poems strikes a keen yet delicate balance in storytelling, conveying a painful history in a way that allows the reader to pace themselves while also seeing the author’s emotional core laid bare.

There is a fine line between love and hate, writes Fleming, and this fragile border is evident throughout the book right from its title. Violence, joy and chaos are all facets of loving and being loved; and this is a major theme of the book. As Jane charts her formative years she does not spare her reader any of her graphic experiences and the book well and truly earns its content warning. But this is also the strength of it. The reader is not given the option to look away and is through seeing these events as they are described that they become almost tangible – that the violence, the joy and the chaos are made real. 

The poetry that floats between the essays offers moments of breathing room, even as it offers a glimpse into the author’s poetic soul. Before plunging the reader into a particularly intense essay about self harm, Marshall Fleming writes of

Deep, scaled wells where moisture used to be.

My fingertips burn with fire that I

Cast over desert dirt and sands,

That I hold to my chest and let it fill the gulf anew each day.

If you look closely you can find

Marine fossils with hooked backs

               Call them out by name

               Let them curl and crack—

Perhaps the humanity in this book lies with Jane’s frank assertions that she has not recovered from these traumas, rather that she has learned to manager her reactions to them. It’s okay to still be traumatised by the past – recovery is an ongoing journey, she tells us. There are dark days. But there are also moments of light. 

I laughed full throated when I reached the surface once more, water pouring out of my nose and ears. My friends all cheered and began to climb the rock themselves, one at a time. 

They took a photograph of my second jump. My hips are round and full around the rope, my legs are strong. My smile wide.

The essays in this collection read like a series of connected vignettes, each capturing a pivotal moment. Marshall Fleming uses small but precise details to position the reader fully in each moment, drawing perfectly on the sensory to bring scenes to immersive life. Her use of metaphor works equally to bring to life some harrowing scenes to which she was not actually a physical witness; events which sucked her into their aftermath, forcing her to imagine what had happened behind closed doors. This is not a tale of woe, begging for pity. Rather, it is a story of a continuing journey of truth and honesty, of grief and of steps forward through it. 

Jane Marshall Fleming has created something unusual and powerful in this book. The gravity of this extraordinary collection will sit with the reader, leaving them pondering the tipping points between violence, joy, and chaos. The balance is indeed delicate; and this book is a reminder of how easily we fall from one to the other. 

Violence|Joy|Chaos is available now from Rhythm & Bones Press.

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