A review of Angle of Flickering Light by Gina Troisi

Reviewed by Kate Brandt

Angle of Flickering Light
by Gina Troisi
Vine Leaves Press
April 2021, Paperback, 228 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1925965483

Try reading the first paragraph of Gina Troisi’s memoir, Angle of Flickering Light, and see if you can stop when you come to the end of it.  Hold in your mind the image: the five-year-old girl playing with the pens of a father who has already left her, watching the clothes of the pin up girls pictured on their sides fall off and on again as the little girl flips the pens upside down and back.  

Angle of Flickering Light tells an honest story.  It’s the story of a life in progress, marked at its beginning by a series of small, devastating acts—a parent who should protect and cherish instead abuses.  The damage done in those early years has a long trajectory in the life that follows, and what compelled and moved me in this memoir was Troisi’s own bearing witness to her struggles to come to terms with the damage.

Gina Troisi’s father is a disaster that will mark her.  The book begins with descriptions of the overnight visits she makes to her father and stepmother’s house when she is five, six, seven and only a few years older.  These encounters are quietly horrifying.  Gina endures insults, yelling, gaslighting.  Her stepmother will not allow her to eat between meals, and she develops anorexia.  Her phone calls with her mother are eavesdropped on; her letters to her half-sister read by her stepmother and used against her.  

The result of this abuse is a kind of numbness:  

I realized how skilled I had become at blocking out what was going on around me, how I was able to sink so deep into myself that even I wondered where I had gone.  

At its beginning, Troisi’s story may seem like a Cinderella tale.  While her half-sister, her stepmother’s daughter, gets all the best things, Gina gets the abuse.  What this engenders in her is a deep need for escape.  Trapped in a car with father and stepmother as she is taken to visit her half-sister at an expensive summer camp, Gina-the-narrator reflects:

Soon I’d be the one looking for escape, taking acid at friends’ beach houses and running along the strip chased by police.  I’d spend my summers in friends’ crowded cars clouded with smoke, passing wine bottles, crushing up pills….I knew this at age twelve.  I knew the life I was drawn to, the kind of life I was on the verge of making.

By high school, Troisi is firmly entrenched in that life.  There are parties at any number of houses, chance sexual encounters.   One of the pleasures of the book is the way she records these events, conveying the wild joy of release.  A scene from high school has her standing up in the back seat of her friend’s moving convertible, high on mushroom tea, and reveling in the pleasure:

The trees were colossal guardians walking past one another.  Birches, white pines, red maples.  Dogwoods, beeches, green ash.  In the car, we were part of a doll’s village, a miniature playland.   

Troisi’s description of a trip to an abandoned children’s camp in the rain, high and aimless and restless with her friends, was a kind of reverse image of the trip she had made with her father and stepmother to the expensive half-sister’s camp that Gina would never be allowed to attend:

We headed to a closed children’s camp, where we explored the empty cabins….the sky crackled, the booms of thunder reverberated within the tiny wooden structure….the rain the sound of a waterfall; it skirted off the roof, missing us.  We heard breaks and pops as twigs and branches split.  This rain carried the smell of summer with it, wood chips and mulch.

A strength of this memoir is the sensuousness and immediacy of the language of Troisi’s language.  Whatever episodes from her life she describes, we are there with her.  Her descriptions of drug parties and casual sex not only bring us into the physical sensation of each moment, but also convey the looseness and careening spirit of young people giving themselves up to the moment; to life itself.

It may work to escape our pain in the beginning, but at some point, it will come around in another form to remind us of what we are running from.   For Gina, this pain manifests when she falls in love with an addict, an act she knows is supremely self-destructive, but which she cannot resist:

In my twenties, I dated a man who was still living with his ex-girlfriend.  I was living nowhere, so we had sex on the bathroom floors of friends’ apartments.  We moved from floors to counters, bathmats to showers.  One of these times, after we stripped one another, he called me his ex’s name by accident.  I got over it rather quickly…even though I was in love with this man…I was not upset for more than a moment.  I was his ex; I was myself—what was the difference?  He and I were bound by a by a common need to escape ourselves…it was overridden by the way I fulfilled what this man desired, by the way he believed he’d get clean for me, by the way I convinced myself I could help him kick his habit.  I expected I could be both his ex and myself—both the addict and the savior.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the way it honestly conveys the contradictory truths we so often live.  To be an addict is to be continually involved in your own ongoing demise; to hurt those who love you, but Troisi conveys both the damage and the love, refusing to judge; refusing to tell an easy story that neatly divides right from wrong.  In one scene, we see John, the addict Troisi is in love with, with his son Jacob.  The two of them walk for hours in very cold weather, the child crying from the cold.  The father-addict drops down to put his face close to his son’s; to warm his small son’s hands in his own.  In so many ways, he has failed his son, just as he has failed Gina, but there is still tenderness.  I was grateful to Troisi for writing a scene that embodied this complicated truth about love.

This is not just a story of pain and escape; it is also a story of self-redemption.  At some point, Troisi hits a point at which there is no way out but self-repair.  She takes herself off of all drugs, and goes to California to heal on her own.  Late in the book, Troisi makes a return trip to California, a place that was in some ways the farthest outer curve of her journey.  Here, she introduces something I love: Dance Church.  

Those of us who have fought with our pain by becoming addicted—whether it is to drugs, sex, or the one person who is exactly wrong for us—know that there is a kind of sanctity in coming together with others like us—to heal and bear witness together.  Troisi’s description of Dance Church:

I danced alone, as I always did.  I noticed the way others kicked their feet, leaned into and pushed off one another’s bodies.  The people in the room established collaborated rhythms, had transferred heat to and from one another, clasped hands in mid movement; they gestured like mimes; splayed aerial silk that streamed across the room.

For me, this image encapsulates the way Gina’s trajectory has led her at last to facing herself.  I see the wild dances of the people in this room as a kind of group prayer: let us heal ourselves; let us not pass on the damage.  

The very last image we are left with in Angle of Flickering Light is the image of Gina writing all day, then accepting her boyfriend’s offer for a motorcycle ride.  

We take off down the road, the noise of the bike in my ears, and we weave along the pavement, meander up and down hills.  I have one hand on the seat’s strap, and my inner thighs hold Derek’s hips, my hair fluttering around my eyes.  We travel the back roads of surrounding towns, the streets lined with blue spruce pines.  Trails of green blaze by us.

It’s been a long journey, but now she is free. Gina Troisi’s website is here:  https://gina-troisi.com/about/

About the reviewer: Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, Literary Mama, Talking Writing, and Ginosko, among other journals.  Her novel Hope for the Worst is forthcoming from Vine Leaves Press in 2023.  She works in New York City as an adult literacy Instructor at the City University of New York. Find out more about Kate at: https://katebrandt.net