While there is a body of literature out there written by those who have had alcoholism badly, books such as The Lost Weekend, by Charles R. Jackson, Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry and the memoir What to Look for In Winter: A Memoir in Blindness, by Candia McWilliam, fewer books, if any, have been written by those who love an alcoholic. Louisa Young’s memoir, You Left Early, (published yesterday by The Borough Press/Harper Collins) is such a book. It is the same subject, alcoholism, but a shift in lens. The lens is that of lover, and not just a lover en passant, or a lover of a small chapter of a life of an alcoholic. Louisa Young fell in love with a man, Robert Lockhart, when they were both very young and she loved him for thirty years. As she says, she was either half in love with him, or madly in love with him for most of her adult life. The love affair began in 1976, when they first met on a staircase in an Oxford College.
Robert Lockhart, from Wigan, a musical prodigy who, at an early age, won a scholarship and then achieved a double first degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, was a the kind of man who signifies a strong animus and imago figure for many women, or rather a type of woman: brilliant, handsome, talented, charming, intense, romantic – in short, yer basic likeable unpredictable, impossible-to-pin down rogue. Women adored him and Young writes of women lying under his piano when he played. He seduced and ravished many, including her. The first twenty years of their relationship contained many adventures, trysts, periods of loving monogamy and still, comparatively, only a medium amount of pain. In these decades, Lockhart is a man who drinks, and who is wedded to drink, and he is also, like many drinkers, evasive. Also, he is a man who is loveable, and who loves her, and he shows up, albeit intermittently, and when he does he is dazzling and heartbreakingly beautiful. At some point, though, he runs off and marries someone else and has a son. Young, at this time, also has a daughter with another man. It’s when Lockhart reappears, three years later, post failed marriage, his luck starting to wear thin, that the story, and hence the plot, grows darker. Young, whose pride has played an upper hand in keeping Lockhart well sussed, says she will commit to loving him only after he commits to stop drinking. It’s then that their affair shifts gear to another level of pain.
Lockhart dies a decade later. He does get clean and sober, for five of those years. His final years of alcoholism are so grim, they are hard to read. He owns a flat littered with bottles filled with piss, he is banned from every local pub. He wanders the streets. He and Young separate. One night, he almost snaps his foot off during a drunken fugue. He tries the famous rehab Clouds, for six weeks, only to drink again. Young, still in love with him, tracks her relationship with hope. He ends up half dead, on the stairs outside his flat, emaciated and shit smeared, barely conscious. It’s not really till Lockhart almost dies and loses his mind completely, is given a six month dry out in a rehab in Chalk Farm, that he begins to do the necessary work to reverse the decades of damage. You could say his case is standard and in no way unique because alcoholism, in society, is so common. Eventually, Lockhart surrenders to AA and begins to complete the 12 steps. It is a grim and sad story, for it ends in cancer, and death and a crazy death at that.
And yet this is no misery memoir. Anyone who has known a great love will understand this book and know that its primary theme is Eros. Young wasn’t a do-gooding Saviour and rescuer; she was Lockhart’s lover. There were times when she walked away, disconnected and disassociated to save her self. There’s fine writing here, hard facts about alcohol and just how much alcohol is sold in the UK every year and how most of it is consumed by people who have alcoholism as badly as Lockhart. “I want to throw it open,” Young said to me recently. “The shame keeps people silent and silence breeds ignorance.” Indeed. All good memoirs contain insight, the reflective voice of the narrator who has survived her or his own life, has added things up and reports back. When we write a memoir, we share our humanity. When we readers watch the memoirist making sense of her world, no matter how different our story is, we feel a little less alone. Memoirs are an important part of shaping culture and it’s vital that people write them and that women, in particular, write them. Shame kills off so many true stories, and so culture has lots of holes. This is why You Left Early is so good; it plugs a hole. It contributes and gives us a unique understanding of an impossible and taboo world. Best of all, it’s a love story.
– Monique Roffey is an award-winning Trinidadian-born British writer and memoirist. She is the author of six books, five novels and a memoir. Her most recent novel, The Tryst, was published in July 2017 by indie press Dodo Ink.