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  • University of Iowa Press, 2013
  • ISBN: 1609381793

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

The evidence at hand: an autobiography—complete with their mother's edits—written by his brilliant and disturbingly religious sister; a story featuring actual childhood events, but published as fiction; perjured court documents hidden in a drawer for decades. These are the clues Robin Hemley gathers when he sets out to reconstruct the life of his sister Nola, who died at the age of twenty-five after several years of treatment for schizophrenia. But Hemley, hampered by a "larcenous heart" that covets his sister's story for himself, discovers that finding the truth in any life—even one's own—is a fragmented and complex task. Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness is much more than a remembrance of a young woman who was consumed her entire life by a passion for God. It is also a look at what people choose to reveal and conceal, and an examination of the enormous toll mental illness takes on a family. Finally, it is a revelation of the alchemy that creates a writer: confidence in the unknowable, distrust of the proven, tortuous devotion to the fine print in life, and the sacrifice to writing itself as it plays the roles of confessor, scourge, and creator.


"A diagnosed schizophrenic, Nola Hemley died in 1973 of a medication overdose at the age of 25. In this affecting, highly inventive memoir, Hemley's younger half-brother . . . attempts to understand what led his gifted sister down the path toward mental illness, drawing on her journals and artwork as well as his own memories of her. There are, he discovers, no obvious answers. . . . In the end, Hemley's strikingly, often fascinatingly, postmodern narrative tells us more about the challenges and ramifications of writing a personal memoir than about its subject's life. . . . [T]hose interested in writing as a process will find his articulate musings amply rewarding." — Publishers Weekly

"In this candid, revealing family scrapbook, Robin Hemley, a fiction writer and essayist, assiduously investigates the ways in which truth and fable shape identity. . . . Ultimately Nola becomes a chronicle of a literary period, a story about a gifted family and, most of all, an examination of Robin Hemley's evolution as son, brother, husband, father, and writer." — Chicago Tribune

"Exceptional ... Hemley's book sits square in the center of the new and most successful nonfiction, exemplifying the trend of stretching the form. Nola is not just a life-and-death narrative of the author's brilliant and disturbed sister, but it's also a complex narrative of Hemley himself .... Couple the inventive format with a writing style that is deeply reflective, utterly honest, and sensitive of the issues of writing nonfiction in this way, and you have a colossal memoir. Hemley involves himself not just in telling a life story, but creating meaning by revealing how he thinks—exploring not one, but several voices that relate this narrative. In this, Hemley is a master .... This unconventional pattern of revelation will fascinate avid nonfiction readers, unless you're looking for mainstream confessional memoir, in which case, head for something lighter and less sophisticated than Nola." — Anne-Marie Oomen, ForeWord Magazine

"Hemley, author of Turning Life into Fiction (1994), has not been able to write about his sister Nola until now, 25 years after her death. A young woman obsessed with the magical and the "hidden," she became overwhelmed by voices and visions. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, she soon succumbed to an inexplicable overdose of prescribed medication. It's easy to see why her story demands to be told, but everyone in Hemley's family is fascinating, and he ponders his complex legacy in a mesmerizing juggling act, combining the drama of fiction with the candor of memoir and the close scrutiny of criticism. His mother, Elaine Gottlieb Hemley, is a fiction writer, and his father, Cecil Hemley, was a poet, Isaac Singer's editor, and cofounder of Noonday Press. Nola wrote, too, and Hemley incorporates each of their voices into the tight weave of his intricate narrative, choosing wisely to abide by what could be the family motto—"Everything is open to interpretation and revision"—and allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions." — Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Hemley takes the memoir form further than mere recollection of familial events, and delves into the arena of imagination and what if. His mission to tell Nola's story is complicated by the fickleness of family members' memories, the mystic nature of much of Nola's work, and his own admission that he covets her strange and wonderful story himself. The result is a surprising and honest process of both writing and discovery—finding the "facts" and revealing the truths about the way we remember and what we try to forget. This is not a book to rush through, but one to savor and think about for a good long time." — Susan Swartwout, Review