“Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.” (Marguerite Duras)

It’s Mother’s Day today here in the UK and in Ireland, Nigeria, Jersey, Guernsey & the Isle of Man. The shops have never been so awash with pastel bouquets; trying to find a non-twee arrangement for a woman who would think I had lost my mind if I presented her with such has proved an epic quest.

Sometimes I worry my mother and I have a weird relationship (we definitely do). The run up to today has also been a cause of tension, as its my birthday, and we both think the other person should be the focus of the celebration* (I mean, 41 years old, who cares?) There’s nothing like reading about dysfunctional relationships to make you feel comparatively better about your own, so here are 2 short novels that expertly portray difficult, strange but loving mother/daughter relationships.

Firstly, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016). Sofia and her mother Rose are in the south of Spain, desperately hoping (at least, Sofia is) that the unconventional approach of Dr Gomez will cure Rose of her various and variable health problems. The two of them have a claustrophobically co-dependent relationship, and while Sofia admits “I want a bigger life.” she is unable to tear herself away from her mother, physically and emotionally:

“I dared not move to a less painful position because I knew that she was scared and that I had to pretend not to be. She had no God to plead to for mercy or luck. It would be true to say she depended instead on human kindness and painkillers.”

Dr Gomez’s approach is psychological as well as physical, and he orders Sofia to spend time away from her mother. As the sun beats down, Sofia has time to think. Back in London, she works in a coffee shop and sleeps in what basically amounts to a cupboard on the premises. She has given up her PhD in social anthropology, but still thinks like a social anthropologist, such as when considering a woman she is interested in:

“Who is Ingrid Bauer? What are her beliefs and sacred ceremonies? Does she have economic autonomy? What are her rituals with menstrual blood? How does she react to the winter season? What is her attitude to beggars? Does she believe she has a soul? If she does, is it embodied by anything else? A bird or a tiger? Does she have an app for Uber on her smartphone? Her lips are so soft.”

We are entirely inside Sofia’s head and it is a suffocating, fascinating place to be. She is a mixture of insight and naivety, self-knowledge and self-delusion, but she starts to peel back a few layers of her life.

 “Anything covered is always interesting. There is never nothing beneath something that is covered.”

The relationship between Sofia and Rose is as suffocating as the heat that surrounds them, but Levy builds this up in small, telling details.

 “Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother. Memory is not always reliable. It is not the whole truth. Even I know that.”

This idea of subjective truth permeates the novel. If Rose is a hypochondriac, or if she is deliberately manipulating or daughter, or if she is truly unwell, the result is the same. The truth of Rose, of Sofia, of their individual identities and relationship together will shift and change constantly. There is understanding but they don’t necessarily know one another, or themselves.

 “I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is my mother’s language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue.”

Levy is not interested in making Sofia or Rose likeable, yet both are sympathetic. They are both floundering, and this is described in beautiful precise prose.

“She had catalogued over a billion words but she could not find words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.”

Hot Milk has stayed with me long after I finished it. It is not a novel that ties things up neatly, because Levy would never be so trite, but that does not mean it is not satisfying. It’s a brilliant, disturbing story that creates an oppressive atmosphere and believable characters. A fully realised story in a small space: my favourite kind of writing.

Secondly, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016). I haven’t read Olive Kitteridge, which won Strout the Pulitzer Prize, but I definitely will now because the writing in Lucy Barton was perfection. Like Hot Milk, it’s a short tale (thanks to terrible London traffic I read the whole thing on an arduous journey to work one morning) but fully realised.

Lucy is looking back on when she was hospitalised with appendicitis. In a time before mobile phones and other digital communication (sometime in the 1980s) she feels isolated and so her husband asks her mother to visit her. Her mother has never been on a plane but she is a determined character and gets herself from the fields of Illinois to the concrete jungle of New York, to ask her daughter questions like:

“‘Wizzle, how can you live with no sky?’”

They haven’t seen each other in many years yet Lucy is happy to see her. The estrangement has emerged rather than been absolutely decided upon, but estrangement it most certainly is. Lucy’s childhood was not a happy one  and we gradually learn this through her recollections – most certainly not through any open discussion with her mother.

“There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store to talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.”

Lucy’s family was also incredibly poor, and yet it is this that has made her a college graduate and a writer, escaping her home town, something her brother and sister have not managed.

“There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm.”

Her mother regales her with anecdotes about families in their home town, but they never address the issues in their own family. It is never fully articulated exactly what went on, but it seems Lucy’s father had PTSD following the war, and was given to violent fits of temper.

“I took Vicky away in the fields until it was dark and we became more afraid of the dark than our own home, I still am not sure it’s a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true. Ask anyone who knew us.”

Not explicitly explaining what happened is a master stroke by Strout. The idea of unreliable memory is a recurring one and she effectively captures how family history is a mix of shared differing memories, understanding, bafflement, conflict and love. We rarely sit down and objectively explain our families and who we are to ourselves at length; it’s too close to see and insights come in flashes rather than long interior monologues. Lucy understands as best she can, and she accepts what she can.

“ ‘Lucy comes from nothing.’ I took no offense, and really, I take none now. But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.”

Strout is a wonderful writer. She is interested in people and in presenting them in their unfinished state – there is a feeling her characters can surprise you, as we surprise each other and ourselves, because no-one is wholly consistent or coherent all of the time. She writes simply but beautifully.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

To end, my mother combines her mothering of me with that of my brother, who was a big Mr T fan when we were wee. But that’s really no justification for what follows:

*pub lunch

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” (Billy Connolly)

If you live in the UK, the news has been dominated by one story for weeks: the Scottish referendum.  On 18 September the Scottish people voted in favour of staying the union, but this wasn’t a vote for the status quo, and as such the news coverage continues, assessing the changes that are needed.  Prompted by this current affairs Caledonian focus, I thought I’d look at work by Scottish writers who engage with ideas of land and home, and how complex those fundamentals can be.

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(Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/your-travels/8572241/Scotland-readers-tips-recommendations-and-travel-advice.html)

Firstly, a Booker-nominated debut novel, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 1999).  This was a lesson to me to persevere with books, sometimes it pays off.  At first I found the story of male familial relationships utterly depressing:

“My father found it easy to hate his father; he had much more ease, in that sorry business, than his own son would ever have.”

The reason I stuck it out was because I’d read other novels by O’Hagan and I knew what a beautiful and sensitive writer he is.  Our Fathers is narrated by Jamie, son of Robert, grandson of Hugh.  The lives of the family are imbedded in the landscape of Glasgow, a landscape that Hugh is determined to change:

 “For years the city vibrated to the sound of diggers and pneumatic drills. Old powdery tenements fell to the ground. Whole townships cleared away.  It became part of the noise of Glasgow…there were half-chewed buildings on every street”

As an adult Jamie returns to Glasgow to visit the dying Hugh, from Liverpool where he has been trying to forget the past.  As Jamie returns to Scotland, he feels his way amongst the people, places and language that are at once entirely familiar and entirely apart:

 “The men at his table had similar faces.  Red and watery-eyed. All the trace of former good looks upon them. …The air was filled with their smoky laughter and the sound of the jukebox. Music, laughter, the shadows of words.”

 “‘Are the spirits high?’ I asked. And then all of a sudden I felt how foreign that phrase would sound… ‘Can he… can he thole the pain?’”

And what made Our Fathers initially so depressing for me was what made it ultimately so rewarding.  Out of pain, abuse, mistakes, recriminations and hardship comes forgiveness, wisdom, kindness and redemption:

 “I stood beside him, and listened to his life, and I held his hand, and I finally grew up”

It was an incredibly moving book, finely observed and insightful regarding the delicate meaning in moments that can barely be articulated.

Secondly, a poem by Kathleen Jamie, Here Lies Our Land.

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

 

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

 

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says,

You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s a short poem, and so I don’t want to analyse it to death, but I will just say I think the way Jamie creates a gentle, reflective tone through metre and language captures something fundamental and enduring; its language like the land she speaks of. You can read Kathleen Jamie’s thoughts on the poem and her writing process here.

To end, a man who shares my view on what Scotland’s finest export is (not counting Sean Connery):

“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

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Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…