But slipping out from under the treads of Soviet tanks is only one of many "miracles" that the narrator has either witnessed or benefited from directly in his life. I put "miracles" in quotation marks, since here they are conflated with other things, with magic and with prayers, and hence the term's meaning is broadened to include everything from surviving an invasion by some 2000 Warsaw pact tanks, to the "miracles" of marriage, childbirth, and "cranky old men seeing their tumors disappear overnight."
This expansive definition of miracles makes for a good attitude toward life (though the cynic in me can't resist wondering what prayers are answered by the existence of tanks and tumors in the first place). Whether it makes for a good memoir opening is doubtful.
Clearly, the narrator has a story to tell. Indeed, he seems to have a grab-bag of stories, surviving Brezhnev's tanks being one of many. He has also survived another displacement, that of his father (whom his mother "sent packing") by her "new man, the Doctor Professor." This domestic restructuring happened eight months before those Soviet tanks rumbled into town, causing the already unstable ground under the narrator's feet to tremble that much harder. From Bratislava he and his family escaped to Vienna, and from there to Toronto—on a plane which, we're told, "did not crash"—in itself, according to the narrator, another miracle.
In selecting "miracles" as his theme, and then defining them so loosely, the author casts such a wide net over his material that it's hard to say what, exactly, this memoir is about, other than the narrator's very eventful life in general—which, however eventful, isn't a fit subject for a memoir, but instead launches this project into the territory of autobiography. Not a good thing.
While an autobiography is essentially a first-person account of someone's life, a memoir has a thematic focus to which the memoirist's history s subordinated. The key to a good memoir, as someone once told me, is that it's not about the memoirist, but about something that the memoirist has experienced first hand—an ordeal or challenge (Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynn Cox), or a relationship (Tobias' Wolff's This Boy's Life, Jeanette Wall's The Glass Castle), or life in a particular time and place (Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, This House of Sky, Ivan Doig), or a revolution (Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-Li Jiang), or a spiritual crisis or journey (Practicing Resurrection, by Nora Gallagher, Dan Barker's Godless).
Unless you're already a public figure, or known for some other reason, it's questionable whether anyone will want to read your life story; anyway they would need a reason to read it. The memoir form supplies that reason by treating the author's biography as the well from which a particular story is drawn, and not asking readers to drink the whole well dry.
Here, with this first page, the author suggests many intriguing tales, but unless he draws his thematic net tighter and narrows his focus, he'll drown himself— and his readers— in autobiography. Which would be a shame, since not only does this author obviously have a story to tell, he has estimable gifts of language and voice with which to tell it:
Our father had been laughter, but mainly absence. The stepfather was rules and rigidity. The new regime together was marked by clenched teeth on all our parts. My mother was, I think, happier than she had been, but not when all four of us were together; then she was tears and apologies.This is good writing. It only needs to serve an equally good purpose, and that purpose should be not to illuminate a whole life, but a particular experience—in this case, I think, how the "miracle" of survival, while it holds out the promise of "yet another life," also subjects its benefactors to further, and sometimes even greater, perils.
As for which portion of his eventful life best illuminates that theme, the author must decide, and cast the rest of his life into the background where it belongs.