Children and Parents in Literature

Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes it’s your subconscious deliberately selecting books which speak to your innermost needs and fears. I’m going through a bout of reading about mothers and children (occasionally fathers are involved too, but it’s mostly mothers and sons I’ve been eavesdropping on). Fiction has always provided me with more inspiration than any number of self-help books.

monstercallsPatrick Ness: A Monster Calls

The sinister black and white illustrations by Kay perfectly match this story about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s deadpan refusal to be impressed or frightened by the monster is realistic and brings a note of fierce humour in what could otherwise be a very bleak story about denial, anger and ultimately acceptance of loss. As for that final dialogue between Conor and his mother – oh, my! I borrowed it from the library with the intention of giving it to my children to read, but after emerging from it a tear-stricken mess, I decided better not. Not just now.

mountainshoeLouise Beech: The Mountain in My Shoe

A chilling tale of parental neglect and the difficulties of navigating the social care system, seen through the eyes of a young boy (also called Conor, incidentally). The ‘lifebook’ is an inspired method for conveying all the different stories and voices present in Conor’s life, and the quite dry factual content of many of the entries merely make the sadness all the more palpable, while avoiding sentimentality. The title of the book comes from a statement that the little boy makes around the Muhammad Ali quote: ‘It’s not the mountains ahead which wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – and Conor has a whole mountain in his shoe. Luckily, there is also much love in the boy’s life through the three mother figures, although they don’t always know how to express it.

clevergirlTessa Hadley: Clever Girl

An example of Tessa Hadley’s subtle humour, choosing a title like Clever Girl and then proceeding to show us how her main protagonist, Stella, demonstrates a lack of ‘cleverness’ by making what many might perceive as the ‘wrong choices’ and ending up with quite a difficult life as a result of it. Yet, as the story progresses and Stella’s two sons grow up, we realise that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of ‘clever’, as she ultimately succeeds in raising happy and reasonably well-adjusted children, and achieves some sort of contentment herself. Of course, there is also the slightly patronising tone of ‘clever girl’, which you might utter to a dog performing tricks… A writer who is simply masterly at elevating the mundane detail and making it appear full of significance, while also providing a great insight into character.

promessaubeRomain Gary: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

I will do a more detailed review of this book in another post, as it has been every bit as wonderful as Emma promised. For now, let me just say that I adored this mother but would dread to become like her. Not quite a memoir (although autobiographical, it has been fictionally heightened in parts for the utmost effect), it is largely the story of Romain’s arrival in France as a refugee with his mother. Above all, it is about motherly love and self-sacrifice, about her unbridled belief in her son’s glorious future, and that son’s attempts not to let her down. In this book, Gary pays tribute to a larger-than-life character who pushed him to so many achievements later in life. It is beautifully written – tender, passionate, like an informal conversation with a friend, very poignant at times, and also very funny and self-deprecating.

To this set of imperfect, absolutely human mothers, now also add the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which a mother can no longer cope with her ‘difficult’ child, and the effect this has on the entire family. I just watched that on Saturday with my own children and what do you get? ‘No, I’m NOT crying, I just have to blow my nose because I have a cold, all right?’

14 thoughts on “Children and Parents in Literature”

  1. Oh, I’d love to see a stage version of that Haddon novel, Marina Sofia! What a great experience that must have been. The books look really powerful, too. The mother/child dynamic is so complex, and has so many variations and outcomes, if that’s the right word. Little wonder that there’s so much written about it.

    1. What was striking about these books (with the exception of Clever Girl) was that the mother/child relationship was seen through the eyes of the child, with all the foibles magnified but also forgiven.

    1. You should be able to find Promise at Dawn, Life Before Us and White Dog.

      Others might be available in used copies, like Lady L or The Roots of Heaven.

      Enjoy

  2. I love the theme of this post; mothers and sons. I keep getting A Monster Calls out from the library, and continue to return it unread. I also have felt like I don’t want my kids to read it until I have – it seems so sad. But I’ve heard from so many people to read it anyway. I will, one of these days. The others sound equally as good!

    1. It is an emotional wrench, A Monster Calls, which is why I’d kept putting it off as well… But maybe I am wrong about wanting to wrap the children up in a protective bubble forever.

  3. That Romain Gary novel appeals to me immediately although A Monster Calls also sounds hugely powerful. I think parent child relationships in all its guises does make for great storytelling.

  4. Great post. Parents/children relationships are an endless source. Like my mother always say, “Whatever you do, your children always have something to complain about later. So don’t worry”.

    Thanks for the link to my Romain Gary page. I’m happy you enjoyed La promesse de l’aube and I’m looking forward to reading your review. Hopefully, with your audience, someone else will be tempted.

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