Domenica Ruta's memoir opens dramatically with her mother picking up a fire poker and ordering her out of the house. One anticipates violence but, while what ensues is dramatic, it is not directed at Domenica, who watches her mother smash the windscreen of another woman's car with trepidation but not terror.
The rest of the first half of the book continues in a similar vein. Ruta's mother Kathi is a single parent, a hoarder of trash, a screamer, an occasional drug pusher and a frequent user, who oscillates between gainful employment and the dole. Ruta grew up in an atmosphere of relative squalor, low-grade crime and insecurity, fending for herself from a young age, while retaining a deep emotional bond with her unpredictable mother. While one can imagine this might have been tough, the book only hints at the rigours, instead taking a matter-of-fact tone coupled with humour.
It is childhood as the child Ruta must have perceived it, with a little bit of retrospective understanding, such as when she acknowledges how she must have been viewed by her peers.
One of Kathi's redeeming qualities is that she is determined that her bookish daughter has the best education possible. Almost miraculously, she manages to produce private tuition fees and the money for extracurricular activities. While the advantages of this schooling are undeniable, they also compound Domenica's status as a misfit. Kathi also possesses the acumen to turn her new husband's taxi business around and is briefly a millionaire, but lacks the ability to save.
Having paved her daughter's way to a better life, Kathi seems determined to sabotage it as well, exhorting her teenager to get pregnant and then supplying her with pills to get high on from her own stash.
As Domenica describes the advent of adulthood, the tone darkens and her view of her mother turns more critical. There are blurry flashbacks to being sexually abused and the silence with which the adults in the family, including her mother, chose to address these episodes.
Domenica manages to get funding to attend college, but descends into drug and alcohol addiction and the latter portion of the book exposes the legacy of her unstable childhood.
Verdict: a nuanced memoir that offers glimpses into both childhood upheavals and the battle with addiction. With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, Spiegel & Grau, HK$200 at paddyfield.com