Tag Archives: mothers and daughters

Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

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A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

“This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.”

In Amy Witting’s gently witty novel,  A Change in the Lighting, Ella Ferguson, mother of three adult children, is stunned when her husband of over thirty years casually and calmly announces he wants a divorce. Ella, a wonderful wife and mother, who has ensured that her husband “never waited for a meal nor wanted for a clean shirt,” is suddenly cast adrift. Not only must she come to terms with her new solo life, but she also, through her relationships with her children, discovers just how shielded her ‘old’ life was.

A change in the lighting

Professor Bernard Ferguson is (appropriately) standing in front of a mirror when he announces that he wants a divorce. Of course, there’s another woman, in this case it’s the much younger researcher, Louise. After being thrown out by Ella, Bernard stops to ask for clean socks “in a neutral tone, as if he were off to a weekend conference after a small domestic disagreement,” He’s lucky there wasn’t any violence, but then Ella hasn’t yet absorbed the totality of the situation.

Ella breaks the news to her three children: Married teacher, David, difficult, beautiful Caroline who is married to a much older man who works at the same university as Bernard, and Ella’s youngest Sophie, the only one still at home, who’s working as an assistant to a filmmaker.

While Sophie sides completely with Ella, David oversees his mother’s financial interests in the divorce with the idea that he can be some sort of emotionally reasonable conduit. Caroline, however, who’s always been at odds with her mother, strikes out to gain her father’s favour, and as a consequence, Ella’s relationship with her only grandchild becomes a casualty of the fallout.

A Change in the Lighting could have been written with a dire, desperate undercurrent. Certainly Ella finds herself in a difficult position with no job, no money of her own, and  a large, mostly empty house to maintain. In Ella, Amy Witting creates with nimble, gentle humour, a marvellous, and yet perfectly ordinary protagonist, a middle-aged woman who discovers that her sheltered life ends with the departure of her roving husband. While at first, Ella’s life seems to shrivel when her husband leaves, it also begins to expand in new unexpected ways. Sophie brings home her boss, a lesbian filmmaker, and soon there’s a reclusive writer living in the house. While all these changes take place, Bernard, with the predatory Louise lurking in the background, rants about the electric bill, and it soon becomes clear that Ella must make a decision about her home.

Amy Witting, and this is the third novel I read from this author, has a wonderful approach to female madness. I is for Isobel introduced the main character we follow into Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop.  Isobel, in isolation and damaged from a neurotic mother, must learn to accept acts of kindness. In A Change in the Lighting, Ella must accept change, but when her marriage is torn apart, she initially goes through various despondent emotional stages, acknowledging  “no wonder that deserted wives turned alcoholic.” Ella’s life as she knew it begins to disappear and, at times, feeling disoriented she realizes that it would be easy to go mad–that madness is a monster who’s moved in, waiting for her collapse:

When she had got into bed, she considered her day with the monster. Had she made any progress? There were three stages: short spells of quiescence, even moments of peace in which it disappeared altogether, long spells where they co-existed reasonably well, and moments of crisis, when somebody mentioned obsession or some other cause of pain–nothing so bad again as that moment when the thing seemed to be mocking her. It had been coincidence, a trick of the light. 

In hindsight, Ella realizes that there were clues about Bernard’s affair, and as she explains to her best friend, Pam:

“You know, when there’s a noise breaking into your sleep and you don’t want to wake up, you can dream a long, complicated dream that explains the noise away.”

In the fallout of the divorce, Ella discovers a surprising ally in her daughter-in-law Martha, and how true it is that those who marry into a family are often more competent when it comes to deciphering family dynamics. While dramas in her children’s lives spiral around her, and Ella is propelled towards making decisions about her future, she sinks into avoidance by making a complicated rug for her beloved granddaughter. It’s a gift of love and also a marvellous way to ignore her crumbling world:

“So we’re all on the move,” said Martha. “We’ll be moving, too, joining the mortgage belt now that we’ve paid off the unit. Do you have any idea where you’re going to settle? It would be nice to be close to you.”

Ella had no idea on this subject at all. As furniture for the future, she had a remnant of pale green lamé which was to form a stylised arc of sea, the base of a foam of cobweb Shetland wool knitted rather loosely in the traditional Old Shale pattern

Bernard’s desertion of Ella is cold, swift, and brutal, and yet of course he gets his comeuppance. The gentle humour reminds of Barbara Pym–although Pym’s novels are, of course, set in the world of lonely academics, clergymen and spinsters. But I would say if you like Pym, you’ll like Witting and vice versa.

How easy it all was, to get drunk, to go mad, to vandalise, to commit fraud. Perhaps she had always had criminal tendencie; they hadn’t surfaced before because they weren’t relevant, didn’t suit her lifestyle. 

Absolutely on my best-of-year-list

Review copy

(Forgot to add this is one of the books read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge)

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Straying: Molly McCloskey

After I finished Molly McCloskey’s eloquent, thought-provoking novel Straying, I thought about the title. What is the definition of ‘straying?’ The word evokes the idea that someone … or some thing … wanders off the path. Not intentionally. No never intentionally–but an aimless, purposeless wandering off. And that brings me to the book’s plot:  Straying  is the story of a young American ex-pat who travels to Ireland, gets a job, and marries. Alice, a journalist in a stalled career, has no particular plans when she arrives in Ireland “at the tail end of the 80s.” She makes connections and drifts into a job in Sligo as a barmaid. Here she meets Eddie, a quiet, older man, who imports furniture. While Eddie seems perfect husband material, Alice feels a tug of resistance.

And then, one night, I had what felt like a conversion experience. I allowed myself to accept, with what seemed my whole heart, a future with Eddie. It wasn’t a decision (even allowed isn’t the right word), and that was why it felt like something I could trust.

All the right boxes are checked, and so they marry. Eddie buys them a lovely home, and is kind and thoughtful to his younger wife. Why then does the marriage go wrong?

Straying

In the novel, Alice is now a middle-aged woman who’s spent nomadic years working for non profits abroad. She returns to Ireland after wandering the world being exposed to some of the planet’s greatest miseries, and she finds herself alone with the memories of her brief marriage and an affair. Alice reminisces about Eddie and their marriage, still trying to unravel the motives for her actions decades later, yet even deeper than these troubling memories which are entwined with thoughts about her decisions, Alice deeply mourns her mother. By far the strongest connection in the book exists between Alice and her mother–even in death.

Now that Alice’s life is far removed from the notion of home and children, she finds herself thinking more about her mother and some of the conversations they had, especially those that took place towards the end of her mother’s life when “she often sounded distracted, as though she had caught sight of something approaching in the distance, something she couldn’t quite make out.” People who reach middle age (or late middle age) are fortunate indeed if their parents are still alive, for it’s only with age that we can possibly begin to understand our parents.

Straying is essentially the story of an affair, yet it’s also a story of loss,

Beyond the end of the lawn, the upper half of the Protestant church, which dominates the Crescent, looms like a giant risen from slumber, and when the night is cold and wet and moonlight falls on the yew tree and its needles glint like tinsel, the spectacle of it all is more than satisfying–for though I lament that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when I thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come around again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and that though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not. 

After finishing this wonderful book, I found myself puzzling over Alice’s behaviour. How did she drift into marriage? How did she drift into this affair? She certainly never intended to hurt anyone, yet that was the ultimate result.

The title has a double meaning: Alice’s affair but also the aimlessness of her early life and marriage. Yet was she really aimless? Bad things happen in life. Take disease for example. We don’t choose disease, but sometimes it happens anyway, in spite of our plans or our tactics of avoidance. But can we say the same thing about marriage and/or infidelity? Do they just happen or are they murky attempts to establish or demolish something we don’t even recognize that we are seeking?

I’m a big believer in the idea that most of the time, people have a way of getting what they want. I’m not talking about money or health; I’m talking about the subtle manipulation of circumstance: I didn’t mean to let the dog off leash; I didn’t mean to have an affair. 

If you like books that delve into the murky waters of motivation, then you should enjoy Straying. While Alice chews over the choices she made, because yes they were choices even though she didn’t see things that way, this leaves room for the reader to speculate about the deep motivations for the decisions she made. Alice is a sensitive, thoughtful narrator who is still chewing over her actions decades later, and perhaps because she doesn’t make excuses, I liked her even more.

I’ll be reading this author again. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

I recall a single midnight downpour, parked in Eddie’s car above the beach at Rosses Point, the world through the windscreen a rich black smear, as though painted in oils. 

(Alternate title: When Light is Like Water)

review copy

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Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

Review copy

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.

the-other-side-of-the-world

The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy

 

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Amy’s Children by Olga Masters

In the novel  Amy’s Children, Australian author Olga Masters creates characters who commit appalling acts of betrayal: a mother abandons her children, a husband betrays his wife, relatives turn on each other, and an unforgiving daughter rains down retribution on her mother’s head. Yet in spite of these things, or perhaps even because of them, ultimately there’s a sense of understanding underlying these people’s actions. Amy’s Children follows the life and decisions made by one young Australian woman over the course of a few decades–through the depression, WWII and beyond in a judgmental society in which the struggle for survival creates tough moral choices.

Amy is from Diggers Creek “a hamlet of school, post office, public hall, general store and All Souls Anglican Church.” It’s the Depression, and Amy, with three small children, finds herself abandoned by her husband, Ted, who leaves to find work and fails to return. It’s a miserable, hardscrabble existence for everyone when Amy moves back home with her three little girls. The poverty of the era is tangible with Amy walking back to her parents’ home, children in tow, and one of her brothers carting her pathetic pile of belongings in the farm truck. A few years of marriage have left Amy with little beyond a kettle, two saucepans, a frying pan, an old butter box the children pretend is a pram, and of course, the three children.

amy's childrenThe restlessness in Amy begins as she watches the road for Ted’s return, and perhaps this is where it all her dreams begin:

She would dream of having a job, buying a new dress and silk stockings, and a blue band for her hair to go to the Tilba Tilba dances.

She sometimes dreamed aloud on the front veranda, sitting between Kathleen and Patricia, with her feet among the arum lilies growing thickly on either side of the front steps.

“Mummy might get a job one day, you never know,” she said once, her eyes on a car racing along the road, going south. It might stop, she said silently, a man might get out and come up to me and say, I’ve got a job for you in my big shop. There will be clothes for you very cheap, and clothes for the girls. Come on, I’ll give you half an hour to get ready. All she needed to do was to wipe their faces and go.

Unfortunately the ‘dream’ doesn’t include the children:

The car had gone but there was another coming. Perhaps this time, Amy thought. The baby cried and Kathleen took a sharp breath and watched Amy’s face.

‘Lebby’s crying,’ she said gently as if Amy were sleepwalking and she didn’t want to shock her into waking, In a moment there were footsteps inside and the crying stopped. ‘Gramma’s got her,’ Kathleen said.

Inside herself Amy said, I won’t be taking her. She didn’t either. Or for that matter the other two.

Amy eventually makes it Sydney, solo, of course, and she moves in with her Aunt Daphne, Uncle Dudley, and their two sons. It’s an agreement given grudgingly, but then almost everything given in this tale–love, attention, food, relationships and even accepting responsibility–is given under some bitter constraint or unspoken protest. Once in Sydney, Amy, masquerading as a young single woman is able, with some struggle, to find employment and improve her circumstances, but it’s only a matter of time before her past arrives on her doorstep.

This is a novel which examines individualism and moral responsibility, and no matter which Amy chooses, there’s a terrible price to pay. These days, Amy’s small materialistic desires and dreams of city life seem modest, but due to the times and her circumstances, she chooses between staying in her parents’ home and being a mother, or abandoning her children to their grandmother’s care while picking up her life as if she’d never had children. Just as Amy effectively creates a narrative for her life in order to gain employment, Kathleen, the first of Amy’s three daughters builds a narrative of her own, and we see how two generations of lives are bitterly interlocked by Amy’s choice to abandon her children. Amy sheds her children lightly, like tossing aside yesterday’s clothing, but it’s not quite that easy. Amy’s husband Ted manages to disappear, and no one seems to think this is particularly strange or hold him accountable, yet Amy’s decision to do the same is seen as a moral failing by those who know her secret. Kathleen, who possesses a sort of twisted primness, seems to have a submerged desire to see her mother destroyed while there is no lingering resentment for the father who also abandoned her.  This double standard isn’t overworked, but it’s there deep in the subtext of the story.

The introduction provides some background information on Olga Masters (1919-1986). The mother of seven children, she worked part-time as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and her career as a writer came late in life–in her 50s. It’s clear that Olga Masters wants us to treat Amy, a young woman who wants very little from life, with generosity. The introduction mentions the Misses Wheatley, Heather and Grace, two spinster sisters in their sixties, as unpleasant characters. Somehow I think that Olga Masters would want us to take the same generosity that we show to Amy and spread it to the Misses Wheatley. These two spinsters lead a fragile marginal existence on a monthly allowance. Their brother Henry takes over the family’s wheat & sheep ranch, and when he marries a widow with two children, he wants his sisters to have an “independent life.” There’s no share in the family sheep ranch for the Misses Wheatley; instead they’re shipped to Sydney, live in a boarding home and exist on ten pounds a month. They’re a postage stamp from disaster:

Heather, eating her half of the apple carefully because an unsteady tooth at the rear of her upper jaw, looked keenly at Grace, wondering if her pallor meant she was coming down with the bronchitis she had suffered all her life, and how she would cope with the expense of a visit to doctor if this were necessary. Their cheque was due to arrive at the end of the week, but it could fail to arrive should an emergency like floodwaters keep Henry from getting into Dubbo to the post office. Heather automatically and foolishly looked out the window to the sky, clear and blue, and hoped for the same for Dubbo.

The Misses Wheatley provide all the judgment on Amy’s behaviour that she’s managed to escape from her own relatives, and it’s through the behaviour of the Misses Wheatley, and their Victorian attitudes (they must have been born in the 1880s), that we see how toxic judgment is. These two women have never had to make the choices Amy faced, and because they’ve never been in Amy’s position, they feel free to judge her. Through the Misses Wheatley, Olga Masters shows the slippery ease with which judgment falls into place as these two sisters extend the lack of options in their own narrow sterile lives towards Amy. At least Amy never uses anyone as a moral crutch which is a great deal more than can be said for Kathleen. And yet Masters even gives us pause to understand and forgive Kathleen. Kathleen is Amy’s daughter, and yet her appearance, her existence causes Amy to feel threatened, and when she must sacrifice for Kathleen, she sees Kathleen as a resource sponge:

I won’t let her see that perfume, she will want it. And Amy slammed the drawer shut and shut out the angry picture of Kathleen eating a sandwich she didn’t want, while Amy’s throat craved for one. She saw herself drinking water for the rest of her life while Kathleen ate.

Olga Masters paints a quietly savage portrait of suburban Australian life: in the grab for limited resources, children step over their parents and siblings shove aside siblings; spouses depart to feed themselves, and parents begrudge the food and necessities their children require. This all sounds quite glum, and yet, miraculously, somehow Amy’s Children isn’t glum at all. It’s a wonderful, rich, life-affirming book, for we understand that while Amy makes new choices and her life heads in one direction, Kathleen’s adventure is just beginning…

Review copy

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.

 

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Thanks to Emma, I was introduced to French author Delphine de Vigan’s novel  Underground Time, but Nothing Holds Back the Night is completely different.  This is a non-fiction book about the author’s mother, Lucile, who committed suicide at the age of 61; she died alone and was in her apartment for 5 days before her daughter found her. The book was written by Delphine de Vigan partly as a way of understanding her mother, a woman who was a bright, beautiful child model, whose life somehow took a wrong turn as she made a series of bad choices in men, plunged into madness and was institutionalized.

 

Nothing Holds back the nightThrough the process of writing this book, the author basically discovers it’s not so much a question of what went wrong, but more an issue of uncovering the incidents that shaped Lucile, nicknamed “Blue”  by one of her brothers “because of the sad expression on her face.” On the surface of Lucile’s family life, it would appear as though she was part of an incredibly rich, boisterous family with happy parents and nine children (one is adopted), and at one point in the book we discover that Lucile’s family was the subject of a television documentary filmed in 1968 and aired in 1969. Delphine de Vigan watched the film which “shows a happy united family in which priority is given to the children’s autonomy and the development of their personalities.” But reading about the film through the author’s eyes, we can glimpse that there is something terribly wrong with this seemingly perfect picture of family life. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something quite different underneath… .

While the book is about the life of the author’s mother, Lucile, it’s also a quest to understand this complex, very private woman. Part of the quest involves the author’s struggle to write the book and her doubts about where to start, what to include, what to leave out. She’s also very aware that as she peels back the layers of Lucile’s childhood and the “myth” at the heart of the family, she risks hurting people even as she wrestles with various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan describes her journey–the interviews she conducted with relatives, the family photos she pored through, and the tapes she listened to.

But the further I go, the deeper my conviction that it was something I had to do, not as an act of rehabilitation, nor to honour, prove, re-establish, reveal or repair something, solely to get closer. Both for myself and for my children–who, despite my efforts. feel the weight of distant fears and regrets–I wanted to go back to the source of things.

And I wanted some trace of this quest, however futile, to remain.

When the book begins, there’s a definite, curious emotional distance between the author and her mother, and this is one of the elements of the story that interested me so much. The book is obviously not only the author’s attempts to understand her mother but it’s also part of the grieving process and a legacy–an explanation for the author’s own children.

The book is a  little awkward at first as it describes Lucile’s childhood in the moments when the author places thoughts in Lucile’s head that quite obviously could not belong in the head of a small child–it’s the author’s words as we read Lucile thinking about a “nameless protean being,” for example. But as Lucile grows older and increasingly more withdrawn and remote, her daughters enter the picture, and then we read about Delphine’s childhood and her views of her mother. The author appears to become much more comfortable with her subject as the book builds, and she’s also very frank about the difficulties she faced during the composition of this book. As the years tick by in Lucile and the author’s lives, we slowly, as the tragedy of Lucile’s life is revealed,  begin to understand the emotional distancing between the author and her mother. ‘Dysfunctional families’ is a term that’s vastly overused these days. Most of us seem to have crawled out of the debris of some domestic disaster or another, but Lucile’s family is the epitome of the term for while a façade of normalcy and function is maintained, underneath there’s rot.

The author’s journey to understand her mother addresses the past, and that includes complex questions regarding memory and various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan’s journey to the heart of the past includes the idea that family pathology is so easily skirted and avoided in silence. The author also shows how versions of events can collide, tainted by fragmented memory, absence or even simple misinterpretation of events, but in spite the novel’s subject matter and its examination of the very damaged Lucile, there are triumphs here. Even though the darkness in Lucile’s life never completely left but seemed to lurk in the corners of her mind, she beat incredible odds, and later in life, battling her demons, she managed to overcome mental trauma and find a level of peace and happiness.

Lucile made friends everywhere she went in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life … She exerted an odd and eccentric form of attraction around her, mixed with a great spirit of seriousness. This brought her strange encounters and lasting friendships.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is at once an incredibly private and painful book, and one gradually feels, turning these pages, that its completion is also a triumph for Delphine de Vigan.

Thanks to Emma for pointing me towards this book.

Translated by George Miller. Review copy.

 

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