Book Review: Strangeland by Tracey Emin

Book - Tracey Emin's StrangelandI picked up Strangeland in the Hay Festival bookshop (just to take a quick look) and, ten minutes later, realised I was hooked. It’s a collection of autobiographical pieces written by Tracey Emin about her eventful life and, though it’s full of abuse and heartbreak, it’s certainly a gripping read. It’s described on the front cover as “the jagged recollections of a beautiful mind” and “jagged” is a good word for this strange and powerful book.    

It begins at the very beginning, with a painful but honest description of how Tracey Emin entered the world, alongside her twin brother (Paul), amidst complex family circumstances. The pieces are not always in chronological order, yet together they build up an image of a young Tracey searching for love and companionship.

There are some horrifying descriptions of abuse, and rape at a young age, and yet this seems only to make her stronger, to lead her on to what she would become. There are glimpses of family love and kindness too, alongside a steady, ironic sense of humour.

It is split into three sections – ‘Motherland’, ‘Fatherland’, and ‘Traceyland’. There is a sense of movement from beginning to end, a sense of development, but no real narrative to hold the work together, which means that it’s not always easy to continue reading, particularly given the explicit nature of some of the writing. In fact, I skipped over some of it.

Tracey EminThere are lucid accounts of significant moments in the artist’s life, followed by surreal dream-like sequences in which you don’t quite know what is real and what is not. There are also a couple of poems, and some ‘handwritten’ notes or letters which seem to act as a vent for Emin’s anger towards particular individuals who’ve hurt her.

There is a heart-breaking description of what it’s like to have an abortion – a brutally honest depiction of a mind in torment:

“The me that was not me simply said, ‘Yes’. But in my mind I had started screaming, ‘No, no, no, no please, no.’ And I could hear my little baby, crying ‘I want you. Please don’t send me back, I want you. I want to stay here in this world with you.’”

The book was published in 2005 and, twelve years later, the older Tracey (speaking at this year’s Hay Festival) seems very different to the Tracey in this book. She talked about how important art is to her, and how she has developed as an artist over the years. So much of her artwork is about herself, but she emphasised that this is not “self-obsession”, explaining how she has to spend a considerable amount of time on her own in order to work well.

One quote from the book really stood out for me, when Emin goes through the letters of the word ‘Masculinity’ picking something to identify with each letter. Here is what she says for the letter ‘T’:

“… T could be for Tracey. For years I was ashamed of my name. Tracey was synonymous with ‘stupid’. But I’m not, and I’ve changed that.”

This book tells the harrowing story of how one woman grew up through abuse and self-doubt to become a world-renowned artist. But it focuses on the intimate, personal details, portraying the inner workings of a mind just waiting to be turned into art. It ends with a description of Emin’s emotional pilgrimage to Norway, to “pay homage” to Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, and the final instruction: “DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE THE PAST HEAD ON.”

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