“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

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“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!

“One should sympathise with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life.” (Oscar Wilde)

Happy Mother’s Day (for those of you in the UK)!  My finals are seriously impacting on my blogging capacity, and although I had a plan for two novels to look at for Mother’s Day, I didn’t have time.  So instead I’m going to share a poem in its entirety with you.  It’s a poem my mother introduced me to, and it’s one of our favourites.  No matter how many times I read it the last line always makes me cry.  It’s by Peter Dixon and in my edition it’s called Rotten Reader, but I notice in lots of editions it’s now called The Colour of My Dreams.  Happy Mother’s Day Maman!

I’m a really rotten reader
the worst in all the class,
the sort of rotten reader
that makes you want to laugh.

I’m last in all the readin’ tests,
my score’s not on the page
and when I read to teacher
she gets in such a rage.

She says I cannot form my words
she says I can’t build up
and that I don’t know phonics
and don’t know a c-a-t from k-u-p.

They say that I’m dyxlectic
(that’s a word they’ve just found out)
but when I get some plasticine
I know what that’s about.

I make these scary monsters
I draw these secret lands
and get my hair all sticky
and paint on all me hands.

I make these super models,
I build these smashing towers
that reach up to the ceiling
and take me hours and hours.

I paint these lovely pictures
in thick green drippy paint
that gets all on the carpet
and makes the cleaners faint.

I build great magic forests
weave bushes out of string
and paint pink panderellos
and birds that really sing.

I play my world of real believe
I play it every day
and teachers stand and watch me
but don’t know what to say.

They give me diagnostic tests,
they try out reading schemes,
but none of them will ever know
the colour of my dreams.

Just wonderful. I hope you liked it.

To end, here is a picture from Holi celebrations (this year it was 17 March), an annual explosion of colour which I thought suited the poem:

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(Image from: http://www.boloji.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=Articles&ArticleID=14222 )

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Oscar Wilde)

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….

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