Breaking Night [Book Review]

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It is immediately clear why Liz Murray’s memoir Breaking Night is a New York Times Bestseller. From the poignant, heartache filled descriptions of the sole remaining photo of her mother, to the expressive and somehow beautiful reflections of homelessness and abandonment, the first pages of the book set a tone of raw honesty, incredible circumstances, and profound prose that characterize the entirety of the memoir.

The book is dramatic and suspenseful, but reaches past the temptation of simply recording the almost unbelievable events that Murray has survived to touch on themes such as family dynamics, perseverance, and most of all, forgiveness. Murray explains all of the situations and events in her life with a voice of clarity, honesty, and reflection that shift the novel from a melodramatic recollection of events, to an inspirational story about growth, love, and the concept of finding family in those you love most. While Murray struggled through extensive hardships in her childhood, she reaches deeper than a simple description, and provides insight into her strong will, the effects of people surrounding her, the power of hope, and staunchness to inevitably succeed and rise above her situation to provide the best life that she can for herself. Murray’s motivation to be stronger than her circumstances is incredible.

As is described throughout the book, the term ‘breaking night’ is urban slang for staying up through the night, until the sun rises. And it is no wonder that Murray selected such a phrase to provide a succinct summary of her story; she spends nights in turmoil by the phone ready to call 911 should one of her parents not return from their drug runs, she is awake in the night walking the streets and waiting for any of her friends to let her in their homes for a quick meal or a catnap on a futon, she experiences extreme insomnia when her mother passes away, and she stays awake miraculously absorbed in her studies that she is unable to commit to for most of her life. Both the city of New York and Murray blossom at night, unfurling to expose stealthy drug deals, bars that suck her parents in regularly, darkened streets that her frail and nearly-blind mother strides confidently down despite the prominence of violence and rape that pervade during those hours.

Murray’s childhood is stolen from her by the culprit of drug and drink induced intoxication that consume her parents. Before the age of five, Murray comprehends her parents’ drug habits because she has seen them inject cocaine so many times. At the age of five she spends afternoons waiting for the mailman to deliver the welfare check so that her parents can spend it on drugs and a few slices of bologna. And these responsibilities and lifestyle implications continue to ebb away at what childhood Murray could have had. Rather than study math in the evenings, Murray holds her fingers over 911 in the evenings in case her parents don’t return. Instead of playing with other kids, Murray plays somewhat of a game with her father, sneaking him down the hall past her sister’s bedroom so he can buy more drugs. And instead of grumbling over cafeteria food, Murray and her sister plead for even one more mayonnaise sandwich just so that they can ease the pain in their stomachs in the slightest. She trades textbooks for television shows in an attempt to form a relationship with her mother, hustles gas stations as a minor in order to get money to buy the family food, gives up her birthday money so her mother can buy more drugs, and reads her father’s crime books, biographies, and trivia books that he steals from the library in order to feel connected to him. Behind ever action of Murray’s, there is consistent motivation to nurture ties to her family members that she sees as crucial to her life when she is young.

These family dynamics are perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the book. It is painful to read about the hunger that Murray and her sister experience while understanding that all of the money has gone to a few hits of coke. Reading about the guilt that Murray feels because she believes her parents demise to be her fault is agonizing. And when reading about the constant absence and neglectful actions of Murray’s parents, it becomes easy to want to dislike them and rebuke them for their actions. While Murray in no way at all endorses their lifestyle, she writes so powerfully about tender moments that do occur within the family that allow readers to see inside Murray’s mature and forgiving mind. Rather than dwell on the damage that her parents inflicted on her, Murray forges connections pointing out the positive traits that her parents nurtured in her. For example, Murray cites that her father taught her not to care what anyone else thought of her which gave her a sense of strength in crucial moments of her existence. Her mother loved her and would give her a hug when everyone at school jeered at her and made fun of her appearance. Additionally, there are many moments in the book when her mother breaks down and explains how much she wishes she could end the cycle that she feels trapped in. Murray writes so eloquently about these interactions between herself and her mother that the emotions leap off the page and into the hearts of readers. The longing for acceptance and love that Murray strives for throughout her life are explained vividly and honestly, which make the entire narrative awe-inspiring and excruciating in the same moments.

These descriptions I have just given regarding what make this memoir so powerful only scratch the surface of the content that exists between the covers. Murray encounters so much resistance from acquaintances, her family, teachers, and circumstances that when she succeeds, readers truly rejoice with her. This book is compelling, motivational, and moving. There really are no words to describe the experience of reading this memoir because it is so pure in voice, so extremely incredible in content, so beautifully written, and so inspirational. Because I am unable to adequately explain how amazing this memoir is, I highly recommend that you pick it up for yourself and read through Murray’s challenges and successes. It will change your perspective on homelessness, on limits of the human spirit and heart, and the depth of motivation that exists within each of us.

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