Kathryn Harrison grew up in a house without peanut butter, Twinkies or “The Brady Bunch” — the staples of an American childhood in the 1960s and ’70s. She also grew up mostly without a father, but it wasn’t his predatory ghost that haunted her childhood home on Sunset Boulevard. Not in this book, anyway. The more benevolent specters in residence for this go-round, her fourth memoir, are the younger selves of Harrison’s grandmother, a London-born, Shanghai-raised, French-speaking germaphobic Jewish heiress, and of her grandfather, a kindly adventurer who had been, variously, a fur trapper, a railroad surveyor and a sapper during World War I after growing up in poverty in London.
“On Sunset” is Harrison’s gentlest inquiry into the particular foreign country that is her past. The horror of “The Kiss,” in which she detailed with both surgical dispassion and elegiac longing (one hell of a feat) her long-absent father’s return as her seducer and abuser, was followed by “Seeking Rapture: Scenes From a Woman’s Life.” That collection of essays laid out the themes she would parse again and again: her gothic upbringing by her Old World grandparents; the rebuffs and enchantments of her careless, questing and very angry mother, who gave birth to her at 17, left her to be raised by her own parents and died of breast cancer at 42; and the age-old rituals — self-abnegation and self-mortification — Harrison practiced as a defense. In her last memoir, “The Mother Knot,” Harrison, happily married (to the novelist and editor Colin Harrison) and with children of her own, found herself embattled by those same practices when her son fell ill. As a kind of cure, she exhumed — figuratively and actually — her mother’s body.
“The Kiss” landed in 1997, an early example of the dark-cornered memoirs that would dominate publishing for the next two decades, paving the way for the gimlet-eyed investigations of Rachel Cusk and the wincing beauty of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. At the time, there was much hand-wringing over the suggestion that the price of entry into this new/old publishing niche wasn’t writerly chops but childhood abuse. It’s also hard to fathom, in these #MeToo days, how much opprobrium was hurled at Harrison, in particular, for publicly unfurling her gnarled history, as if she were complicit in her father’s crime. But with detachment and grace, Harrison, along with Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff, her literary compadres from that era, more than earned her right to revisit that territory.
And so to “On Sunset,” which describes not just a place (a house built on a precarious site) but the period into which Harrison was born. Her grandparents met late in life, and a daughter and granddaughter were “the not unhappy surprises,” as her grandfather tells Harrison, of that autumn union. Her grandfather was 50 and a traveling salesman. Her grandmother was 41 and had bucketed around the world — the last stops before Los Angeles were London and the French Riviera — as her family’s fortunes waxed and waned, pursued by fortune hunters and energized by her passion for, among other things, fast cars. (Settling in Los Angeles, she brought her flair for speed and disregard for speed limits with her. “What tosh,” she exclaimed with typical insouciance when she failed a written driving test.)
She was a Sassoon, a member of an enormous merchant family from Baghdad known as the Rothschilds of the East. By the late 19th century, Harrison writes, they were responsible for 70 percent of the world’s opium trade. Florid eccentricity was a family trait. Harrison’s great-aunt Cecily was a lesbian who lived with not one but two lovers, all three in one bed. A visit from Cecily, accompanied by one of her inamoratas, riveted Harrison: The couple dressed alike in black, shared a single seat at the dinner table and ate from a single plate. Cousin George lived at the Plaza Athénée in Paris with his mother and at midcentury socialized with otherworldly characters like Gore Vidal, Jean Genet and David Niven. At 80, George is “your fairy godmother, sweetie pie,” he tells Harrison, and gives her a photograph of himself sporting angel wings and nothing else.
Harrison’s grandfather came from humbler stock — his mother ran a boardinghouse after her fishmonger husband died of consumption, and he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker at 14 — but he was as happily afflicted with wanderlust as her grandmother. As a child, Harrison delighted in naming the many New World cities, from Quebec City to Juneau, that he stopped to work in as an engineer or a timekeeper or an accountant. At home on Sunset Boulevard, he wore dress suits and white shirts when gardening. (He never bought new clothes, having a full wardrobe left over from the sample cases of his life as a traveling salesman.) He was gentle, handy and resourceful, tending a vegetable garden, planting succulents to shore up the eroding cliffside property, building a chair high in a tree so Harrison could read “Alice in Wonderland” among the branches.
Though Harrison’s mother flits in and out of these pages like a malevolent sprite, leaching love, order and money from the household, “On Sunset” is not, in the end, a story of loss. (Harrison’s mad preacher father is barely noted here, and you can almost — almost — forget his gruesome transgressions.) The Trans-Siberian Express that bore the Sassoon daughters on their journey to boarding school in London; the Alaska-Gastineau Mining Company that fired Harrison’s grandfather because he couldn’t keep the names of the Russian miners straight; the unit of the Royal Canadian Engineers he joined at the tail end of World War I; the pidgin blend of English and Cantonese her grandmother speaks in Shanghai — these are the glittering riches of Harrison’s childhood, her most precious inheritance.