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Fingers Crossed by Miki Berenyi review – trauma, stage-dives and stardom | Autobiography and memoir

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When Miki Berenyi was eight years old, her father, Ivan, would take her out on the town. At local nightclubs, he would buy her vodka and orange and the pair would hit the dancefloor. Soon it would be time for her to fulfil her main purpose, which was to act as bait for an “appropriately attractive woman”. Once Ivan had selected his target, his daughter would be dispatched to chat to her. A few minutes later, Ivan would apologetically retrieve her and engage the woman in conversation. “While I’m pleased to have been an accomplice – part of Dad’s dynamic duo – it’s a self-defeating skill because I am from that moment sidelined,” Berenyi recalls. “No longer the centre of Dad’s attention, I become bored and begin yawning, and he has the perfect excuse to usher his catch home.”

Music memoirs tend to race through their author’s childhoods to get to the meatier business of rock’n’roll stardom, but Fingers Crossed is not like most music memoirs. Fiercely honest and emotionally acute, it is evenly divided between Berenyi’s early life and her nine-year stint as the singer in British dream-pop outfit, Lush. While the band, who toured the world and enjoyed a handful of Top 40 singles in the 1980s and 90s, had their dissolute moments, they had nothing on Berenyi’s family life, which was characterised by extreme chaos and dysfunction.

We learn how Berenyi’s parents split when she was four, after which her mother, Yasuko, a Japanese actor, began a relationship with the TV and film director Ray Austin. When the couple moved to Los Angeles, Berenyi opted to stay in London with Ivan, a Hungarian sports journalist, in their crumbling house in Willesden. Ivan invited his terrifying, controlling mother, Nora, to live with them, and she initially fussed over and cosseted her granddaughter. But events took a grim turn as Nora began to sexually abuse her. Years later, Berenyi learned she had done the same to Ivan.

Despite the trauma at the heart of her story, Berenyi’s writing is characterised by arch humour and a delight in the absurd. On a summer holiday to Hungary, then part of the Soviet Bloc, Ivan insists on the making the 1,000-mile journey by road, bundling the three of them into a car stuffed full of safari jackets and shower fittings that he pressgangs Miki into selling, Del Boy-style, on the streets. She also recalls visits to see her mother in LA where she would frequently lock horns with her stepfather, Ray; whenever he suspected Yasuko of taking her daughter’s side, he would deploy his “go-to scene-stealer” and fake a heart attack.

The upside to all the parental neglect is that Berenyi is free to pursue her musical passions. She meets Emma Anderson, Lush guitarist, at school, where they bond over bands and start their own fanzine. Lush’s rise is vividly told, as Berenyi finds the squalor and rootlessness of her childhood has set her up well for life in a touring band. Again, Berenyi revels in their more ridiculous moments; her account of the Lollapalooza tour in 1992 takes in exploding hotel sprinkler systems, a stage-dive that ended with her being passed, unconscious, over the crowd’s heads, and a cyclone in Long Island that blew a portion of the stage into the sea.

Balancing out the fun and hijinks are simmering tensions with Anderson and Berenyi’s reflections on an industry that fails to value creativity, treats female musicians as eye candy and habitually defers to the men in the room. The Britpop years, and the lad culture that grew around it, are brilliantly eviscerated in a five-page rant in which Liam Gallagher and former Loaded editor James Brown, among others, don’t exactly emerge covered in glory.

Lush ends in tragedy with the suicide of the band’s drummer Chris Acland in 1996, after which Berenyi opts for a career change and takes a course in proofreading. It’s with remarkable pragmatism that she looks back at her life and music career: “You can’t expect good times without the bad – neither makes sense without the other.”

Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success by Miki Berenyi is published by Nine Eight (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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