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Review of "Better Broken Than New" by Lisa St Aubin de Terán - from a former bank robber's wife to a rising young novelist.
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Review of “Better Broken Than New” by Lisa St Aubin de Terán – from a former bank robber’s wife to a rising young novelist.

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With some exceptions from the past, reading about the lives of authors can be unexciting. However, this is not the case with Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s life. “Better Broken Than New” is her latest book, published after a gap of 12 years. Its lively and tumultuous narrative is filled with enough adventures and mishaps to fill multiple lifetimes. As a reader, one cannot help but wonder not just about the source of her creative material, but also how she has managed to survive and share her story.

Avoiding death due to a premonition, preparing meals for a cannibal, and surviving the supposed harmful actions of a racist nurse at a maternity ward. These events, along with instances of infidelity and separation, are almost insignificant compared to the true defining moments of this story. These include kidnapping her own five-year-old daughter and living under the protection of the police, as well as defending herself against a gang of home invaders with only a hunting knife – all while in her 60s.

According to the information we have, her start in life was quite unique. She was conceived in a psychiatric facility where her mother, Joanna, who had been divorced three times and was a romantic at heart, was being treated for severe depression. Her father, Jan Carew, a writer from Guyana, was also seeking treatment for what was then referred to as pseudoneurotic schizophrenia.

Joanna experienced a period of partial paralysis during her pregnancy, which was later diagnosed as a hysterical psychosomatic condition. However, she recovered in time for the birth of her youngest daughter, who she affectionately called “Lizzie” during her childhood. Joanna attributed her recovery to her daughter. Meanwhile, Jan’s career took off and he moved on, leaving Joanna to raise their daughter, along with her three other children, on her own in a modest flat in Clapham, south London. Despite financial struggles, books were always abundant in their home. After getting divorced again, Joanna decided to change their surname from Carew to St Aubin, referencing her family’s respectable roots in Jersey.

At the age of 17, Lizzie decided to stop going by her nickname. She had gotten married to Jaime de Terán, a Venezuelan bank robber and former political prisoner who was much older than her. He didn’t like her nickname because it made her seem like a pet poodle. They didn’t speak the same language and he took her away from her school in south London to a remote plantation in the Andes. Before she fully realized how unstable he was, they spent two years on the run in Europe as a “honeymoon”. When he told her that they would be involved in a murder-suicide pact with their daughter Iseult, she left and went back to England with her child and a suitcase full of writing fragments that would eventually become her literary works.

The influential de Terán family served as inspiration for her highly personal first book, a blend of gothic romance and magical realism called Keepers of the House. It was released in 1982 and the following year she was featured on Granta’s first list of Best Young British Novelists, alongside well-known male authors such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Though her fondness for Edwardian fashion caught the media’s eye, it was their fascination with her personal life that kept their attention.

Following the achievement of Keepers of the House, she persisted in drawing from her personal experiences and went on to publish eight additional novels and five memoirs. Naturally, there are some similarities as she reflects on the years following, spent as a literary hostess in a haunted castle in the Fens with poet George MacBeth, and later as the lady of an Umbrian villa with painter Robbie Duff Scott. She had a child with each before ultimately leaving.

What caused the extended break in her writing career? This is just one of the many gaps in her insightful and heartfelt book, but she does explain how she has spent her time. In 2004, she relocated to a quiet fishing village in Mozambique with her partner, Dutch war correspondent Mees van Deth. Together, they worked on refurbishing a dilapidated palace and attempting to create nurseries and sustainable tourism ventures. Along the journey, there have been numerous challenges, including a dangerous robbery, a destructive cyclone, and six nights of wrongful imprisonment.

In 2021, De Terán went back to London, by herself, to live on a houseboat. Similar to her escape from Venezuela almost 50 years ago, she brought along a collection of literary material, but this time it was different: she had completed drafts of her memoir and a novel set to be released later this year. At the age of 70 and with a history of leaving behind roles that she doesn’t regret, she has also changed. As she states, “I am unapologetically myself now and I have stopped pretending.”

Source: theguardian.com