“When I was finally arrested in Hampshire, it wasn’t with sniffer dogs and screaming sirens. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon.”
– Farah Damji, Try Me
When a memoir begins with the author’s childhood abduction and ends with her prison sentence, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that the intervening pages be at least mildly diverting. Sadly this is not the case for Farah Damji’s debut, Try Me. The problem is not the lack of incident, but that Damji crams so much into the 271-page memoir that the reader loses track of who she’s sleeping with, stolen from or fought with at any given point.
Damji has variously been the receptionist at an escort agency, a gallery owner and art dealer, an editor, and an inmate at several of Britain and America’s finest prisons thanks to a penchant for fraud and perverting the course of justice. Her move from palling around with the Duchess of York to being a guest at Her Majesty’s Pleasure should inspire pity – instead, it provokes little more than a sense of schadenfreude.
Damji gives us glimpses of a life lived at full speed, but aside from a painful childhood marked by sexual abuse and emotional neglect, we never really get a sense of how she feels about any of it. Despite a privileged background she seems to have little personal agency, stumbling in and out of increasingly bizarre situations without really reflecting on any of them. It quickly becomes clear that she is in love with her own destruction in much the same way as her American counterpart Elizabeth Wurtzel, who shares her fondness for drugs and married men.
Like Wurtzel, the raw material is good and Damji has a poetic turn of phrase when it suits her, but the book clearly suffers from poor editing. The convoluted sentences and slapdash approach to punctuation could be an affectation – she certainly has enough of those – but the misspelling of T.S Eliot’s name (that’s one ‘l’, Farah, not two) points to an editor more interested in books sales than accuracy. She breaks her prose up into short, loosely interlinked paragraphs that flit between tenses and perspectives, and the result is a fragmented, breathless narrative, scraps of memory stitched together in a patchwork quilt of fucking and failed relationships.
Had she gone down the personal essay route, a la Sloane Crosley, we might have gotten a clearer picture of the woman behind the wildness. Sometimes it seems as though she is purely going for shock value, giving her one night stand with lesbianism more coverage than some of her relationships. Her lifestyle is clearly designed to impress, but for a readership feeling the bite of the recession, tales of unbridled luxury often fuelled by illegal behaviour have limited appeal.
It is unclear who this book is aimed at – potential jury members, perhaps, or lovers she feels wronged by. It isn’t really an apologia, and not quite a kiss and tell, although Damji spares no blushes when it comes to some of her affairs, faithfully reproducing emails and text messages and parroting her paramour’s dirty talk. Nor is there enough emotional purging for the memoir to be a public catharsis. The overall impression is of a writer who has yet to scratch the surface of her subject, and a woman reluctant to delve too deeply into her own subconscious. Try Me makes for engrossing, if frustrating, reading, and by the end we are left no more enlightened about Damji’s inner life than when we began.
Try Me is published by The Ark Press £9.99