In 1982, on the back of glowing reviews for her debut novel, Keepers of the House, the British novelist Lisa St Aubin de Terán found herself the subject of journalistic excitement. She was still in her late 20s, and was living in a ruined castle in Norfolk with her second husband, the poet George MacBeth. She had just won the Somerset Maugham Award; the following year, she would feature on the inaugural Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists.
Yet all anyone wanted to talk about was her past. As de Terán writes, with some exasperation, in her new memoir, Better Broken Than New, she thus found herself going “over and over what it had been like aged 16 to marry a bank robber, to live on the run and the supposed excitement of life on the hacienda”.
You can hardly blame the journalists. Amid the pale, male literary landscape of the era – all those Oxbridge-educated Julians and Martins – de Terán stood out like a bird of paradise. The daughter of the Guyanese novelist Jan Carew, whom as a child she barely saw, and a formidable mother prone to depression, she had indeed run off to Venezuela as a teenager with her bank-robber husband, Jaime, a political activist who’d been imprisoned and tortured.
Jaime barely spoke English and Lisa had no Spanish. He was also a schizophrenic, who became obsessed with the idea of a triple suicide pact involving the couple’s young daughter, Iseult. This prompted de Terán to flee to Norfolk, though first she had to spend several years on the run in Europe with Iseult, escaping Jaime’s “vengeful” clan.
Throughout her next marriage, to MacBeth, de Terán presided over fabulous literary soirées at their castle. But she fell in love with the painter Robbie Duff Scott, who soon became her third husband, and with whom she moved to Italy. When, in turn, that marriage ended, she virtually disappeared. From 2004, she spent nearly two decades living in an abandoned palace in Mozambique, where she ran a series of community projects. At one point, she was attacked by a machete-wielding gang. Like the heroine of a rackety opera, de Terán only ever seems to have lived in dilapidated mansions, alongside peacocks and baby eagles. Until she moved to Africa, she only wore long Edwardian dresses.
De Terán is now 70, and lives, inevitably, on a houseboat in Chelsea. She has covered much of this extraordinary story before in various memoirs and autobiographical novels, and though it’s told in full here, it’s somewhat less enthralling than you might have hoped. Perhaps she has given up trying to make sense of a life that has lurched from one crisis to the next; or perhaps, having once provided such fodder for the press, she has become wary of fashioning her life into public melodrama.
Either way, an editor ought to have exerted some discipline on this disorderly book, in which de Terán dispenses with chronology in favour of free-association, to little aesthetic benefit. One minute, she’s giving a potted history of the Mozambican activist Eduardo Mondlane; the next, she’s repeating details of her friendship with the libidinous Polish artist Feliks Topolski, whose sprawling studio under Waterloo Bridge became a 1970s celebrity haunt. Certain major incidents, such as the rape and attempted murder of the teenage Iseult, merit barely a sentence; others, such as de Terán’s stint in prison, take up several chapters.
Throughout, de Terán reflects on herself as a passive subject in a life full of largely unwanted self-reinventions. The reader, for one, can’t quite pin down her personality amid marriage break-ups and affairs, a cast of characters that includes Andy Warhol and Malcolm X, and a huge convoluted mass of incident. De Terán, for her part, is happy not to apply much definition. “I knew there was something different about me,” she writes, “without my really knowing what it was.”
Better Broken Than New is published by Amaurea at £19.95. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books