Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Review by Alyson Morris of "I Had It In Me" by Leonie Orton
(This review is also published on Everybody's Reviewing here).
Leonie Orton’s memoir, I Had It In Me, is an autobiographical account of a difficult upbringing, intertwined with quotations from plays by her famous brother, Joe Orton.
Authors of autobiographies rarely grip readers - unless there are intricate and emotional details of human thoughts, such as those brilliantly conceived by Colm Toibin, or augmented with shattering descriptions of poverty and human survival, such as those created by Frank McCourt. Delightfully, Leonie Orton’s exposés hit hard. They capture the emotional damage caused by a loveless mother-daughter relationship, and define her early life with such disturbing detail and force, that readers will undoubtedly wrap their arms around little Leonie and hold on tight.
As a fan of Joe Orton’s sardonic accounts of life, I can see where all that cynicism came from. Younger sister, Leonie Orton, describes their upbringing with candor, and dishes out multiple servings of pathos for the reader to vividly imagine being right in the thick of it. Their mother, Elsie, who is by far the most dominant and captivating character (in a disturbing sense), is a callous, selfish and downright cruel mother and wife. She may have dished out a morsel of love to her sons, but her wickedness towards her daughters and the bullying of her ‘weak’ husband, will afford no pity from readers. Yet Elsie is a compelling read, and is sadly missing from the second half of the book.
Throughout Leonie’s story you will become increasingly compassionate towards her. You will become exposed to her tragic young life at Fayrhurst Road and then Trenant Road council estates, and watch her struggles with education so that she ends up with little choice but to work in factories. Enjoyably, the author’s memories of this time are highlighted with quotes from Joe Orton’s plays such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and What the Butler Saw. These references demonstrate links between his characters and members of his family, and expose the damaging influences of Leonie’s childhood, which has ignited a cynicism and wit that she shares with her brother.
As the autobiography evolves, you hear how Leonie struggled but succeeded in forcing herself out of Elsie’s template, into education, and finally into love. The second half of the book, triggered by the tragic death of her brother, quickens in pace. It also lacks the references to play scripts and Elsie. Despite the unsavoury depictions of Elsie, her absence is felt. And Joe Orton’s accounts of human behaviour linked to Leonie’s life are also missed. One powerful message in this part of the story is that we grow with Leonie. She moves from higher education into better jobs, and finds love with John Foster. Sadly, the affair ends in another tragic death, this time at the expense of the NHS, rather than Joe’s murder being at the expense of his lover.
As the final section of the book emerges, the pace slows again as Leonie appears comfortable with the re-introduction of brother, Joe. The final chapter is real page-turner, like reading Leonie’s accounts of her mother. The last pages take you on a journey with Leonie while she searches for the missing pages from Joe’s London diary. These pages are said to expose the reasons for his death in 1967.
Leonie now runs the Orton Estate and is often interviewed about her brother. She should now be interviewed as an author. She did have it in her, and I hope that we hear from this author again. I also hope that she now has all the love she can get.
About the reviewer
Alyson Morris is the Course Director for English and Creative Writing at Coventry University. She teaches modules for writing picture books, theatre and radio scripts and travel articles. Alyson writes poetry and short fiction, is Executive Editor of the Coventry Words magazine, and is currently studying for a PhD in creative nonfiction at the University of Leicester.