A raw-edged memoir


Raw Edges: A Memoir
Phyllis Barber
280 pages, hardcover: $26.95.
University of Nevada Press, 2010.

All memoirs risk provoking the reader's question: What's so important about your life, anyway? Why should we bother to read a whole book about it? Nevada author Phyllis Barber tries to answer that question in her second autobiography, Raw Edges: "While this search may be a self-absorbed, even selfish task, I think it's also a dipping into the river of humanity where everyone bathes. … It's about what it's like to want to be above the human fray and to realize I'm not."

In 1995, Barber's first autobiography, How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir, detailed her idiosyncratic childhood as a Mormon musician growing up in a rural outpost of the Silver State. That book ends with her departure for Brigham Young University, where she meets David Barber, who becomes her first husband, the father of their four sons, and the subject of a good chunk of Raw Edges.

The mature Phyllis encountered in this second memoir is pensive, often melancholy, searching for the spiritual solace that has eluded her despite her Latter-day Saints upbringing, though the church continues to reign over most of her life as a stay-at-home mother. But Barber yearns for a more fulfilling love, something her long marriage to David does not provide. This leads her to other lovers, a brief second marriage, and a long and psychologically devastating affair with a younger man who pawns her belongings to feed his drug habit.

Determined to forge a new, more independent life, Barber tests her endurance -- biking toward the East Coast, seeking Shamanic help in the Andes, and hiking high in the Wasatch and other mountain ranges.

In her prologue, Barber quotes St. Francis of Assisi: "Seek not to be understood but to understand." As the author of a fascinating novel about the building of the Hoover Dam, And the Desert Shall Blossom (1993), Barber might have chosen to explore the difficult emotional terrain of Raw Edges in fiction, but returned instead to the memoir. "I confess I'd like to be understood," she answers St. Francis, "if by no one else but myself."

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