I inherited all the great loves of my life from my mother: literature, the theatre, film, Islay single malt whisky, and cheese that will blow out your nasal passages from 50 metres. We don’t agree on everything: Kris Kristofferson remains an enduring source of contention (me: total 1970s love god, have you seen A Star is Born? She: eyes are too small. Neither of us is willing to back down.) These enormous differences aside, we get on pretty well, and so Mother’s Day is a source of celebration in my family. In the UK Mother’s Day is 10 March (for once I’ve managed to post on time, in fact a day early as tomorrow will be spent cooking up a feast for the family), so to any of you who aren’t from the UK, Ireland or Nigeria (ie where Mother’s Day is the 4th Sunday in Lent), I apologise and ask that you view this as a postponed/pre-emptive post depending on when Mother’s Day occurs for you. I’ve chosen one book written about a mother from the point of view of a child, and one written from a mother to her child. Both merge fiction with biography and contain significant sadness, but both are about the triumph of the human spirit. Well, mother-child relationships can be among the most complex…
Firstly, a novel that my English teacher at school thought was very nearly perfectly written: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985, my copy Vintage, 1991). Oranges tells the story of Jeanette, who grows up in an evangelical household in the north of England. Her mother is a strong, dominant and domineering woman who initially believes Jeanette will help her in her idiosyncratic crusade against sin. As Jeanette gets older, she realises she is attracted to women, and acts on this. Her refusal to subdue who she is to the will of her mother leads to a failed religious intervention (almost exorcism) and eventually a breakdown in their relationship. If this sounds utterly heavy and depressing, let me assure you it’s not. Humour runs throughout the whole of Oranges, a gentle prodding at the absurdity of life:
““You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,” declared Pastor Finch.
My mother blushed.
Then he turned to me and said, “How old are you, little girl?”
“Seven.” I replied.
“Ah, seven,” he muttered. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven branched candlestick, the seven seals.”
(Seven seals? I had not yet reached the Revelation in my directed reading, and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked….)
…”Yes,” he went on, “how blessed,” then his brow clouded. “But how cursed.” At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich into the collection bag;”
The narrative is interspersed with a fairytale that echoes the main narrative. This serves to broaden the perspective away from its immediate setting, and emphasise that while it is a unique story that is being told, it is also something familiar to us all, a fable. We may not all be northern English, evangelical Christian and gay, but, in the words of the author:
“Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried.”
Oranges is fantastically well written (when the author was just 24) and succeeds in being challenging and complex, but also easy to read and reassuring. The language is poetic and exacting but never overblown:
“We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old tanks but the council took them away.”
Oranges is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and so of course, I highly recommend it. The author was asked if it was autobiographical. Her answer: “No not at all and yes of course.” For those of you who enjoy it, I also recommend Why Be Happy when you Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, (the title taken from a question her mother asked her when she came out) which shows the story behind Oranges, and also beyond it.
Secondly, Paula by Isabel Allende (1994, my copy Flamingo, 1995 trans. Margaret Sayers Peden). Tragically, in 1991, Isabel Allende’s 28 year old daughter Paula fell into a coma caused by porphyria, and died in 1992 having never recovered. Paula is the story Allende writes for her daughter as she waits for her in the hospital, bringing her novelist’s sensibilities to the story of her family’s life:
“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost. The legend of our family begins at the end of the last century, when a robust Basque sailor disembarked on the coast of Chile with his mother’s reliquary strung around his neck and his head swimming with plans for greatness.”
Those of you who enjoy Allende’s fiction will find the same style here, and some very recognisable characters from The House of the Spirits. Allende writes vividly and with love of and for her family past and present.
“[Your grandmother] was drinking cheap pisco, and hiding the bottles in strategic places. You Paula, who loved her with infinite compassion, discovered the hiding places one by one and without a word carried off the empty bottles and buried them amongst the dahlias in the garden.”
“Celia and Nicolas have asked me to come home to California for the arrival of their baby in May. They want me to take part in the birth of my granddaughter; they say after so many months of being exposed to death, pain, farewells, and tears, it will be a celebration to welcome this infant as her head thrusts into life. If the visions I had in dreams come true, as they have in other times, she will be a dark-haired, likeable little girl , with a will of her own. You must get better soon, Paula, so you can go home with me and be Andrea’s godmother.”
Time is not linear or earthbound in Paula, as the family’s past, present and spirits all exist in a mother’s story, evoked in a hospital room. The final third of the book sees Allende stop talking to Paula and instead speak to the reader, as she loses hope that her daughter will recover. However, the death of her daughter is not an irretrievable loss for Allende who has an acute awareness of the afterlife and sees her family around her whether they are alive or dead.
“She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterised all the acts of her life.”
Paula is a hugely affecting narrative of one of the hardest experiences a mother can live through, but ultimately the enormity of the familial love that surrounds Paula is the strongest force, and this makes it a great Mother’s Day read.
Here are the books alongside the gorgeous Kris. To my mother I say, Happy Mother’s Day, Maman, and I hope titling this post with a quote from your beloved Oscar compensates for my insistence on presence of Mr Kristofferson. And yes, I am planning a substantial cheese plate for the meal tomorrow, don’t worry….