We Are All Shipwrecks – Kelly Carlisle


4/5 stars – recommended memoir

Kelly was always told when she was growing up that where she comes from is what makes her who she is.


Raised by her grandfather, “Sir Richard,” and his much younger wife, Kelly believed for most of her childhood that her mother had been killed in a car accident. One day, just before a retired police investigator meets her family at a nice restaurant for brunch, she learns that was never true.

Kelly’s life is rife with half-truths and mysteries, many of them never completely understood until she was well into adulthood. Some relatives that were once prominent in her life no longer have anything to do with her, while others from her early childhood, not even related to her, keep their relationship for years. Her upbringing was unconventional, although she didn’t realize the degree of its unorthodoxy until she was much older.

Kelly grew up with her grandparents, living on a small houseboat in California. The boat dock was full of other run-down, barely-seaworthy craft inhabited by drug addicts and petty criminals. Numerous cats ran around the boat, Kelly had to know how to work pumps and mechanical equipment, and there was a constant fear of electrical fires. Despite her unease, she still had to get up for school every morning, often wondering if someone would show up to bring her home. She attended a private French school, was introduced to haute cuisine and literature by her grandfather, and yet they often barely had enough money to make repairs to the boat. She was embarrassed wearing her school uniform, worried that it made her look snobby around the almost-homeless people who lived around her.

What touched me about Kelly’s memoir is, although we had completely disparate childhoods, her interpretation of her surroundings as a child was very much like mine. She was often afraid of things that were beyond her control: people she loved getting sick, or those people leaving her. She was burdened with feelings of guilt when someone she loved, mainly her grandfather, behaved in ways that made her feel embarrassed or ashamed.

To add to the confusion and mayhem of growing up on the boat, Kelly’s grandparents’ main source of income came from running a porn store. Her childhood introductions to sex involved images of violence and domination, and her grandfather’s cavalier attitude to discussing inappropriate subjects only added to her bewilderment. The porn store had to be kept a secret from her peers, and she certainly could never bring friends home. The people in her life were unpredictable and often temperamental. Nothing, not even her house, was stable.

Despite the insecure and seedy environment in which she grew up, Kelly comes to realize that the denizens of the docks took on some of the responsibility of raising her, giving her the advice and love that she needed in their own way. And always lingering in the background was her mom, Kelly wondering about her likes and dislikes, her personality, if she loved her baby. This book was fascinating and tragic, funny and also wretched. Kelly’s story is unusual and insightful, a highly recommended memoir.

My thanks to Sourcebooks and Netgalley for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

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