Reviewed by Meghan Phillips
As a child, Nicole Harkin suspected her family might not be like other families. Her father was a commercial airline pilot; her mother, a former stewardess who gave up flying to take care of Nicole and her siblings. Though her father was largely absent from their lives, he made a good living, and the Harkins lived in a large house on a lake and had a big screen TV (unusual for the mid-1980s). They also frequently didn’t have money for groceries or other necessities. Tilting: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, June 2017) is Harkin’s story of growing up in a dysfunctional family and a lie that eventually tears them apart.
The reader is immediately dropped into the Harkin family drama, as Titling opens with a phone call from Harkin’s grandmother telling her that she needs to fly to Montana to see her critically ill father. On the flight, she reminisces about the family’s trip to Legoland in Denmark, a vacation that becomes emblematic of the family’s good times.
The next chapter jumps back in time to Georgia in 1983 and introduces the Harkins as young Nicole sees them. Her younger siblings—John, Erica, and Montana, who won’t be born for several years—are collectively referred to as “the kids.” Harkin admits that “I didn’t like the kids for an amalgamation of reasons… They were dirty and too small to do anything fun. They were slow. They always told on me if I broke the rules. They represented the loss of attention from my parents.” The attention and affection of their parents, particularly their father, Jack, is a source of tension throughout the memoir. Especially after his secret is revealed.
The memoir jumps around in time every chapter, which is a bit jarring. The flashbacks provide context for the family’s dysfunctional interactions and money problems, but they also act almost too much like a flashing arrow pointing towards Jack’s secret.
For example, when Harkin’s father first becomes ill and falls into a coma, she asks her mom, whom she has called Linda since she was nine, where the money is so they can pay bills. Linda has no idea where the money is; she gets “paid” once a month to take care of groceries and other family needs. Harkin goes into her father’s office and looks through his bills, which she knows would have made him angry, because he was very secretive about his papers and money. As they try to figure out where Jack’s earnings have gone, Harkin asks: “‘Could Dad have another family?…”
It’s moments like this that exemplify the challenge of a narrative that doesn’t follow a linear timeline. Foreshadowing may either be too much, as in the example above, or a detail may not be explained for some time, like the how Harkin calls her mom by her first name. Perhaps the turbulence of these time-shifts serves a larger purpose in Harkin’s story. The reader’s expectations are constantly tilted and readjusted, just like Harkin’s were as a child and young adult.
Though her father’s secret is the catalyst for the dysfunction, it’s Linda’s illness that feels like the heart of the story.
Despite some structural bumps, Tilting offers an honest portrait of a family that didn’t know how to communicate without screaming at each other, and shows that even the most unbalanced family dynamics can find an equilibrium.
MeghanPhillips lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she works at a public library and a historical society, and reads fiction submissions for Third Point Press. You can find her on Twitter @mcarphil.