Anneliese Mackintosh’s 2014 collection of short stories, connected by a recurring protagonist named Gretchen, are an interesting addition to the genre of semi-autobiographical women’s writing. Mackintosh is easily identifiable in Gretchen, sharing “unusual names […] German; it caught on your tongue like a mouthful of lace” (Any Other Mouth, 2014, p. 213) and yet it is clear that these stories should not be assumed to be autobiographical. Mackintosh prefaces the collection with the statement:
“1. 68% happened.
2. 32% did not happen.
3. I will never tell.”
Writing one’s own life presented as fiction is not a new concept, women have been doing this for centuries to avoid the stigma which their stories might bring. Doug Johnstone, reviewing Any Other Mouth for The Independent, notes that “you kind of wish that a smaller percentage really happened because there’s some harrowing stuff in here, including self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental collapse” but that’s surely exactly why the author chose her preface; to protect herself because her (and her protagonist’s) stories are so bleak. Indeed, should the reader even believe those percentages? And does it matter? “I’m not sure that all the things he tells me are true” (p. 187) says Gretchen of a male acquaintance. Indeed.
Nevertheless, Mackintosh beautifully crafts the story of a woman’s life in her book, regardless of just whose story it is or how authentic the tale. The short story format works so well here because it allows Mackintosh to showcase her diverse storytelling abilities, seamlessly flowing from standard first person narrative to second person (Doctors, pp. 101-109) to a parody of a self-help book (A Rough Guide to Grief, pp. 133-139) and everything in between. Not only is Any Other Mouth aware of its semi-autobiographical status, it is also aware of its status as a piece of literature, with the protagonist Gretchen writing the stories which make up the book. This becomes apparent in Borderline (pp. 155-174) when Gretchen asks her boyfriend Simon “‘Do you remember that story?’ […] ‘The one I wrote after we had an argument? That day we listened to the radio play, then we had a row and you went home?'” (p. 164). This story features in the collection, titled If You Drank Coffee (pp. 141-145).
Writing for The Gutter, Departed Cat claims that the semi-autobiographical nature of Mackintosh’s collection mean the reader “can’t help but be seduced to play a game of hide and seek” and as such the stories “function as small pieces in a larger puzzle.” This may be true, especially as the stories are interlinked not only by their shared protagonist but also by their self-referential nature, but the puzzle should not be to discover how much is autobiographical. Instead, the puzzle is that of constructing a woman – Gretchen – through fragments of life; of grief and intense emotion.