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: