“Mothers are all slightly insane.” (JD Salinger)

You’re not wrong, JD. Mine is in definite box-of-frogs territory. It’s the thing I like most about her. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, but a relationship such as ours will never be immortalised in literature given that we get on well and it would be inexorably dull. So for mother’s day (which it is today in the UK) I’m looking at two portrayals of mothers that are nothing like my own but which make for great reads. This post is dedicated not only to my own mother, but also to my sister-in-law, for whom today is her first mother’s day as a mother 🙂

My mother and I have never been this adorable

My mother and I have never been this adorable

Image from here

My first literary mother is Mrs Ramsay from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I chose this because Virginia Woolf is one of my mother’s favourite writers, and like the homebrew peach schnapps I once allowed past my lips, I deeply regret this now. How on earth do you write about anything by Virginia Woolf? Her writing is so rich, so multi-layered, so dense and yet so subtle that I don’t feel adequate to the task – which I’m sure the following discussion will prove beyond a doubt 😉

In To the Lighthouse, the Ramsay family descend on their holiday home in the Isle of Skye. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness technique is perfect at capturing everything that occurs beneath the surface of an ordinary day, the deep significance below the seemingly insignificant:

“the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo on her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, ‘I am guarding you – I am your support’, but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all as ephemeral as a rainbow – this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.”

Mrs Ramsay is a nurturing and dedicated mother but here Woolf exposes the fractures that threaten a seemingly harmonious exterior.  I think this passage is just brilliant – the setting up of the monotonous background noise that lulls yet twists in a moment, the mind rebelling against the self, the pure terror that we can be overwhelmed by our own feelings – all while domesticity continues undisturbed.

The family are surrounded by Mrs Ramsay’s nuturing love and the sea, and as the passage  above shows, these are bound together in their constancy being mistaken for predictability. To the Lighthouse uses water imagery to great effect, the sustaining essence that can imperil and kill:

“how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach”

This is my experience of reading Woolf: small incidents, layered up into writing of such power that you surface from her novels feeling dashed by a powerful force.

If you’d like to read some proper reviews of this wonderful novel, there have been insightful and interesting posts written lately by bloggers including Lady Fancifull and Simon at Stuck in a Book. If you’d like to know more about the man Mrs Ramsay married, a man given to views such as: “He wondered if she understood what she was reading. Probably not, he thought. She was astonishingly beautiful.” Sarah has written a typically witty and entertaining post over at Hard Book Habit.

Secondly, The Blue Room by Norwegian author Hanne Orstavik (trans. Deborah Dawkin) one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. I can’t remember which blogger made me aware of this so if it was you please leave a comment! Peirene Press publish contemporary European novellas, and group them in sets of three, linked by theme. The Blue Room is part of the Coming-of-Age series, and concerns Johanne’s intense relationship with her mother; they live together while Johanne trains to be a psychologist. Her career choice is deeply ironic, given that she has no insight into the manipulative, controlling behaviour her mother directs towards her, or her own victimhood.

“She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.”

Well, two clasped hands can be affectionate, reassuring, but also restraining and restrictive. The novel takes place over the course of a day, when Johanne was due to leave to spend six weeks in the States with her boyfriend, yet wakes to find herself locked in the titular space and unable to leave. As she thinks back over recent events, relationships with her mother, boyfriend and God emerge and the reader is left to piece together what is going on beyond what Johanne doesn’t say. She is an unreliable narrator of her own life as we all are, because her perspective is limited by what she cannot see.

Her mother is deeply controlling and Johanne has the victim’s hypersensitivity to her abuser’s every need and whim. At no point does she articulate that it is her mother who has locked her in, unwilling to let her leave.

“Perhaps I’m locked in here as part of an experiment. Perhaps somebody’s pumping gases in and changing my consciousness.”

Johanne’s sexual fantasies abruptly break into the narrative, filled with violence,  with herself as the dominated party in BDSM scenarios. Again, despite her training, she cannot see how this is bound up in her relationship with her mother:

“And what exactly, I asked, is the meaning of this pain? Don’t we grow when we’re happy? Mum looked at me: she seemed angry and said nothing.”

Johanne is young and naïve, lacking insight, both sweet and shocking. The Blue Room is a powerful novella about our closest relationships and how they influence us in ways we barely comprehend.

To end, a little treat for my mother and any other LDP fans out there – enjoy!

29 thoughts on ““Mothers are all slightly insane.” (JD Salinger)

  1. Well thank you for the link Madame Bibi, but i really can’t let you get away with dissing your own insightful review. Your review is absolutely as proper as any other. I do believe that part of the wonder of great writing is that it holds so much more than any one reading and any one reader can find. And, possibly, holds even more than the novelist consciously intended to be found, as the reader brings their world and sensibilities to the read, creating an individual dynamic relationship between the book and themselves

    I go back to another writer whose work I admire very much, Doris Lessing. In the foreword to my very very battered copy of The Golden Notebook, which I came to quite a long time after she first wrote it, she talks about how surprised she was at the varied ways people were reading the book, and how the times themselves had changed what readers were finding in it, some fifteen to twenty years after she first wrote it. I hope your two dedicated to mothers have a great day!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Lady F! I totally agree that literature changes with each reader. I think its wonderful that books are living things, changing across time, places and people.

      I must re-read The Golden Notebook, it’s been so long since I picked it up & it will be interesting to see what I get out of it now – a reminder for me that books change with the same reader as well as between different ones 🙂


      • Yes, I’m well overdue a re-read of TGN. It was such a very influential book for me that I’m half afraid of re-reading in case we have grown apart over the years! I remember suggesting it to a bookclub I belonged to at one time and it turned out every other member found it a difficult chore!

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s always a worry that a much-loved book will let you down isn’t it? I’ve re-read Middlemarch 3 times and so far so good!

          I’ve never belonged to a bookclub but I would be so nervous of making recommendations – I fear I might react with petulance if people hated one of my favourites 😀


          • Well there is that, I ended up not going back – it was a BC run by a local library, rather than organically got together by a group of friends. So though small, I think there were some very divergent tastes, and some people were more into the chat than really fussed about reading.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful review and Mothers day tribute Mme Bibi! Thanks for the link and your kind words. I’m kicking myself as I’ve already got a book lined up for Norway, but ‘The Blue Room’ sounds too good to miss. Oh, and those otters! If I have to come back as an animal and get to choose, an otter I will be! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sarah, and you’re very welcome 🙂

      I’ve found with AW80Books that when I think of a book for a particular country, then I immediately think of at least 2 more I’d like to read – it’s a great challenge & we’re spoilt for choice!

      Otters are one of my favourite animals – I adore them 🙂 Picking a picture for this post took up a lot of time as I couldn’t resist looking at more and more images!


  3. What a nice idea for Mother’s Day! You’ve planted a seed in my head, and I have until May to think about it. It’s funny – until now I assumed Mother’s Day was the same everywhere. I just hadn’t thought about it, I guess. 🙂
    Love the picture of the otters – good choice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Naomi! Mother’s Day here is the fourth Sunday in Lent, so it shifts around a bit but is nearly always in March. Ireland and Nigeria have the same tradition, but I believe the May date is much more widely celebrated.

      The otters are gorgeous aren’t they 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Box-of-frogs territory sounds like the very best place to be.
    How very nice that you write this for your s-in-law-turned-mother as well – and I really love the idea of literary mothers. Now that really is food for thought. You could propose a challenge twelve months hence and see what or rather who comes up…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The mother-daughter relationship can be such a complex one. Mine is with my own mother, and I’m trying not to replicate it with my daughters. It’s the demandingness, the judgemental element – and my desperate attempts not to turn into her! Alas, it’s probably inevitable….

    Liked by 3 people

    • It really is – I think that’s why it lends itself to novels so well, they have the space to explore the complexity and get inside people’s heads.

      I’m sure your awareness means you’re not replicating mistakes, but sometimes it does feel inevitable that we become our mothers… I was always baffled as to why my mother’s capacious handbag weighed so much and what she could possibly need to carry around with her everywhere. You can probably guess what’s happened… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. If there’s an afterlife, I wonder if they have mother’s day? And do all the other mums cast shady looks at Hitler’s mum? And I can safely say, of all the things I expected you to end on, a fan tribute to Lou Diamond Philips was not one of them. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe the mothers of tyrants have an afterlife support group if so? I like to think Attila the Hun’s mother would bring homemade cake, Genghis Khan’s mother would be in charge of lemonade :-).

      The LDP tribute got the seal of approval from Mum, except apparently he was smiling in too much of the footage – she prefers him mean and moody 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A great post! I love your description of the mother from The Blue Room – it brings the book rushing right back to me. I reviewed it 18 months or so ago. That said, Peirene novellas generally receive very wide coverage across the blogosphere, so you could have heard about it anywhere!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There’s so much I love about this post (particularly “…like the homebrew peach schnapps I once allowed past my lips, I deeply regret this now”). Yay for your SIL’s first mothers day – tell her they get better and better as her child’s ability to generate art and craft increases 😀

    The Blue Room – I’m sure I haven’t read it but it seems very familiar…

    LDP – *sigh* – La Bamba remains one of the Best Movies Ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I will definitely pass on the message to my SIL 🙂 My mother still has a needle book I crafted for her when I was four – apparently at that age I thought luminous orange felt and purple sequins were a good combination 😀

      I haven’t read anything similar to The Blue Room, although it was compared to 50 Shades of Grey when it came out – but given I didn’t make it through a complete paragraph of 50 Shades and The Blue Room was very readable I dispute this comparison…

      La Bamba is *such* a great movie!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Great post and reflections on a couple of excellent books that demonstrate an interesting mother dimension. I read a few last year that fit well into the mother-daughter complex, especially Caribbean writers, Maryse Condé’s Victoire, My Mother’s Mother and Jamaica Kindcaids, autobiography of my mother come to mind and also Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, that one really explores something unique with the ‘so called’ adopted daughter.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: “Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) | madame bibi lophile recommends

  11. Pingback: Novella a Day in May 2022 No.13 | madame bibi lophile recommends

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