Unusual Books about Unhappy Childhood

Once again, by complete coincidence, my reading seems to have followed a pattern: powerful and often unhappy childhood memories which have cast long shadows onto the protagonists’ later lives. I generally avoid ‘misery memoirs’, as they feel almost voyeuristic to me, but these books each have a more unusual perspective on traumatic pasts.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

Midwinter is the time of year when the book takes place, but it is also the name of the father and son duo at the heart of this book. It is also about the icy coldness and lack of communication which seems to exist between the two. Landyn and Vale Midwinter are hardy and dour Suffolk farmers. Ten years ago Landyn had tried to save the family from financial ruin by moving them to a farm in Zambia. During their time there, his wife (Vale’s mother) was killed and the two returned home but have never fully come to grips with the tragedy. Vale starts to act up, with stupid and tragic consequences, but his father is unable to talk to him about it, in this fierce indictment  of the ‘stiff upper lip’ or manliness which refuses to talk about pain and grief. Meanwhile, Landyn is fascinated by a fox he sees in the neighbourhood, whom he associates with his dead wife. This is very reminiscent of the Japanese folk tales about kitsune, fox spirits, who shape shift into human form, and are typically the guardians and protectors of the family, as long as you do not try to delve too deeply into their secrets.

This is a slow, atmospheric read, designed to capture a farmer’s fierce love of the land and its creatures. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and sentences, polished like gemstones, but I can see how the overall effect could strike some readers as overloaded and cumbersome. I was enchanted by the book, despite its occasional repetitions. There is a timeless quality to it, you feel it could have taken place at any time over the past 100 years or so. Although very rooted in its local area, it reminded me in many ways of Michelle Bailat Jones’ Fog Island Mountainsright down to the fox spirit, the complex husband/wife dynamic, the difficulty in communicating with the next generation, the loving respect and careful observation of nature.

For additional, longer reviews of Midwinter, see Savidge Reads, Lonesome Reader and Alba in Bookland.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy (transl. Michael Lucey)

Undeniably grim and yet no worse than other ‘misery memoirs’ about neglected/abused children or real stories I’ve heard about growing up gay in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The shocking thing is that it’s not taking place in the 1950s or in some developing country, but in France in the 1990s, early 2000s. The contradictory nature of his parents, the equal amounts of disdain for politics and yet yearning for authority that they display is perhaps the best description of the background of many Le Pen voters. Yet I have to agree with Emma that this feels like a very one-sided description of his childhood, that there must have been teachers and school authorities involved in helping him leave that miserable life behind. Nevertheless, it’s a more measured, dry, objective way of describing traumatic events than in some American memoirs of this type.

There were some fascinating similarities and differences with the film ‘Moonlight’, which also shows a perspective on what it means to grow up as a ‘double outsider’ in society, a perspective which is not often given a voice. Both show how violence (gun crime in the American perspective, brawling and fighting in the French perspective) is fetishised as ‘proof of manliness’. This book is as violent an indictment of working class values and prejudices, as Hervé Bazin’s Viper in the Fist is of Catholic rural bourgeois values.

For more thoughts on The End of Eddy, see Grant , Lonesome Reader and of course Emma’s outstanding review, which gives you the view from France (about the name Eddy Bellegueule, for instance).

Heather O’Neill: The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Suffolk, Zambia, Picardy and now Quebec: proof that childhood unhappiness, abuse and neglect can be universal. Unlike the more contemporary novels above, O’Neill’s story takes us back to the 1920s/1930s, with this tale of two orphans, Pierrot and Rose, who find temporary comfort and escape in each other and the magical world they create with their music, dance and entertainment.

A strange, unsettling, provocative tale, with moments of magical flights of fancy and the language of legends applied to the very grim and unvarnished reality of the Great Depression and trying to lighten the mood of this bleak story. I am still not quite sure what to think of it, as it seems to be rather uneven or a novel of parts. Initially the style seemed almost too plain and bare (describing the rape of a minor), then it became increasingly ornate, even baroque at times. I was enchanted by it in parts, repelled in others – which is what I think the author intended. I expected the story to end when Pierrot and Rose finally find each other again as grown-ups, but this is a book about the desire to escape into fairy-tale, not a fairy-tale as such, so it doesn’t end on a happily ever after.

Heather O’Neill is a poet of a writer who can seem to play around with words, always intriguing me but also punching me hard in the stomach. Despite the wistful waltzing around with imaginary bears, make no mistake: this book is just as hard-hitting as Lullabies for Little Criminals. But don’t believe the marketing hype – it has very little in common with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, except that it defies easy categorisation.

It’s difficult to review this book coherently, but others have succeeded much better than me: Steph, the Literary Llama, Naomi Frisby.

 

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Haibun Monday: Water Image Prompt

It’s Haibun Monday at dVerse Poets’ Pub and this time Mary is asking us to use an image prompt. I’ve rewritten an earlier piece of flash fiction as a haibun (so I’m not sure it fits the description) – and I’m afraid it may be a little longer than ideal.

Boy sailing his boat on pond near the Louvre, photo by Mary Kling.
Boy sailing his boat on pond near the Louvre, photo by Mary Kling.

We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings!  I’m tired.  Run off, do something!’

It’s cold and windy.  The monkey-bars are icy, there are too many children on the merry-go-round. I push the boat forlornly, just a little further out, to amuse my baby brother. Our remote has long since run out of batteries and nobody remembers to replace them. The boat shudders lop-sidedly and capsizes.

My brother’s lower lip starts quivering. I show Mum the wet bundle that was once our boat, hoping her longer arms will be able to retrieve it with the stick. But her eyes are elsewhere.

‘Go run around the pool!’ she says, ‘You’ll soon warm up!’

‘Don’t wanna!’

Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”.  Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want?  Can’t help you if you don’t talk to me properly!  When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time?  Waa, waa!  Is that all you guys ever do?’

She’s off again.  No one can say Mum is stuck for words.  Press a button, and she goes on forever.  I have my pocket remote – one that works without batteries – and zap off her sound like on telly.  Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home.  But no, it’s the usual stuff…  How could she have given birth to such lazy children?…  Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Xbox… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this… A burden on her, what has she done to deserve this…

I’ll have to get it myself. I sit on the stone edge of the pond, lean forward waving the stick like a light sabre. My theory is that if the Force is with me, little rays of it will make waves and bring the boat back to me. It nearly works, but I have to dip my hands into the water quite a bit to grab the sail. My fingers are icy around my catch. I hand it over hurriedly to Jake.

Mum folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench.  Jake stands stiffly beside her, the boat clutched to his chest and dripping all over his shoes. Face all screwed up and snotty.  Refusing to have fun.  I shrug and start playing Star Wars.  I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre.  I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game.  She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else.  All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.

Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning.  Light sabres should belong to everybody. And boats should never be allowed to sink.

Fingers ice over:
Who sees beauty in hoar frost
when hearts need warming?

 

The Powers and Perils of Life on the Street

lullabiesThere may be a Friday Fun picture post later on today, but for the time being here is a book review. During the last few days of my business travels, I have been entranced and slightly horrified by the book I picked up in Montreal: Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals.

It tells the story of terrible events in the life of an imaginative but neglected twelve-year-old girl called Baby.

If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby… I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name.

Her father Jules is still in his twenties and a bit of a junkie, drifting from one hopeless money-making venture to another, one grotty hotel to another, in the red-light district of Montreal. Based on the examples of the adults around her (her hopeless father Jules, the pimp Alphonse, the drunks and drug dealers in the neighbourhood), Baby finds adulthood a boring, disgusting and often pitiful state of being that she is in no hurry to join, although circumstances seem to conspire to get her there too early.

The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.

Montreal
Montreal skyline

This is really the story of successive betrayals, large and small, by all the people around her, how the social care system fails her, but also of the small stolen moments of joy and the fragile friendships that are still possible. It is also the best description of the deliberate targeting and love-bombing of vulnerable young girls by pimps and how children realise that it’s only adults who have any power. Baby remains upbeat for most of the book, no matter how many things the author throws at her. She is non-judgemental and without a trace of self-pity. She sees people around her turning tricks and dealing drugs, she makes friends with outsiders and losers, and she finally descends into a morass of drug-fuelled frenzy.

Sometimes the description can get a little overwrought and the piling on of bad things can get repetitive:

We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night, We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks… We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground…

On the whole, however, the author manages to navigate the tricky path of rendering the unsentimental, clear voice of a child, although there are some odd moments of knowingness (and a hint that this is the grown-up remembering the child’s feelings at the time). Perhaps the innocence and good intentions of Baby do sound a little contrived initially. There is also perhaps too much impenetrable detachment later on in the book. Yet readers will be able to relate to her desire to be loved and her growing feelings of powerlessness, her despair at not being able to rely on anyone, not even her guardian angel.

Initially an honours roll student, Baby ends up neglecting school and finds refuge from an off-kilter, cruel world in heroin. As such, it is perhaps a Canadian version of Trainspotting or Christiane F.

I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don’t think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good enough reason not to do it.

Author photo from cbc.ca
Author photo from cbc.ca

With its sensitive descriptions of the competitiveness but also solidarity of deprived children of all backgrounds, I was not surprised to find out that there are autobiographical elements to this story. The survival of children in a world of inadequate parenting is described by the author thus:

An unwanted child is a bogeyman to its relatives… but a hero on the streets. Being neglected, you have a lot of freedom to develop outlandish, eccentric personalities in order to get love.

Even if I only spent a few days in Montreal, it was rather nice to recognise some place names and be able to place the action. I seem to have been reading a number of books about what the Americans like to call ‘white trash’ – the poor (but not ethnically diverse) on the fringes of society – but not by American authors. French women authors seem to be particularly good at this, and I wonder if there is a mutual influence going on there with Québécois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes,  Alice Quinn or Jeanne Desaubry, but Québécois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.

Poetry Review: Jacqueline Saphra – The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions

SaphraJacqueline Saphra packs a lot into this slender debut collection of poetry (published in 2011). Deceptively domestic and personal, the poems take on a life of their own, dance with absurdity and shimmering wit, and leave an aftertaste of profound inquietude.There are three strands to the work, and they are neatly divided into Parts I, II and III in the volume.

The first describes a fairly typical British childhood in the late 1960s – early 1970s, with plenty of humorous detail: memories of the moon landing, watching news clips about the Vietnam War, half-forgotten family history from the East European shtetls, giggly gossip about sunbathing in the nude with a classmate, struggling to come to grips with the decimal system.

The precocious observations of a child are tinged with a grown-up’s wry remembrance of childhood fears and mistakes. Some are poignant (Target Practice), some nearly surreal and full of wistfulness (about her incompatible parents), while others are just funny and fiery.

The Art of Diplomacy

At three I learned to listen, not to chat.

At eight I counselled friends and sorted spats.

By twelve I was a bloody diplomat.

 

At forty I began to smell a rat

at last. I said to hell with that.

Hand me that baseball bat.

The second strand is about love and lust, the battle of the sexes and the pang of breaking up. The start of a relationship and these poems are sensuous, sexy, drunk on love, beguiling and ready to be fooled again:

so come on, loosen me

with daquiris, your mouth

 

against my ear and tell me again

that you and I are composed

 

of the same elements, that

there’s a sea inside me,

 

and you, too, are salt and water.

I’ll make up the rest.

But most of the poems in this section are about disappointment and animosity betwen the sexes. Small acts of daily warfare in a couple, as well as more dramatic acts of betrayal. In ‘Penelope’ (a poem inspired by Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’),  Odysseus’ wife hurls the loom against the wall in an act of rebellion and leaves Ithaka to search for her errant husband but realises, upon finding him, that he is no longer her destiny. The poetic imagination hits the wall of prosaic negligence in ‘After a Long Sleep’. Women’s subservience and desire to please are mocked and ultimately undermined in ‘Last Harvest’. This is a poet unafraid to voice righteous anger, confusion, pain – in a way which is all too often described as ‘feminine’, but is in fact universal. A jilted lover muses about her successor:

If she had the eye she would touch my mind, she would read

my scrawls, she would balk at my famished word, circling.

But she doesn’t have the eye. I have the eye and I have the greed

and she has my red wrap and she has caught you inside it.

jacqueline.saphra.net
jacqueline.saphra.net

The third part is about death and making peace with one’s loved ones. I suspect this is at least partly autobiographical, as the poet describes a mother who was once thin and glamorous, fun, but was abandoned for a newer, more demanding sylph-like model and never quite recovered from the shock. Over the years she seeks refuge in a string of boyfriends, which the now grown poet is disposed to think of more kindly at several decades’ removal.

I met these men sometimes. They weren’t unkind.

We’d nod, then part like co-conspirators

in some veiled plot to save her from the truth.

Now a mother herself, the poet shifts between the past and the present, the joys of breastfeeding, the almost overnight transformation from baby to adolescent, the anxiety about one’s child obtaining the driving licence. Her own experience of motherhood has both strengthened and softened her, has made her more understanding and forgiving of her mother. The poem about her mother’s last moments ‘Last Call’ is incredibly poignant: full of tenderness and the guilt of not being there.

The last you knew, you heard her swear

she loved you more than I: who knows?

Perhaps that’s fair enough: it was Death,

not I, who said a prayer,

who dropped the final silence in your ear,

your dark head cradled in her lap, not mine,

her bloodied fingers in your hair.

This is poetry of the interstices – simple, clear words, with so much breathing space between them that the readers can fill in with their own experiences, emotions, unformed words. If this is the poetry of ‘domestic preoccupations’ and ‘everyday life’, then give me more of it, for it touches us all!

 

 

 

Fun But Serious: Two Recent Reads

Sometimes humour is the best way to get a serious message across. Here are two books which have made me laugh out loud recently while reading them, but their message echoed and rippled in my mind for quite a while afterwards.

manathelmNina Stibbe: Man at the Helm

The idea that this book could be even semi-autobiographical fills me with horror, although the children seem to be getting on with their lives quite well despite the difficulties. After a privileged early childhood and an acrimonious divorce, nine-year-old Lizzie and her two siblings move with their mother to a village in Leicestershire, where they are made to feel very unwelcome. Their mother is attractive, rather too susceptible to male attention and completely useless around the house. Furious with her ex-husband yet helpless to improve their situation, she soon descends in a chaos of drunken self-pity, depression and bad playwriting. Or, as the author puts it: ‘a menace and a drunk and a playwright’.

This is just one example of the subtle touches underneath the often rather broad comedy: their mother once wrote a play while still at school, which was much praised and even performed for a week by drama students. That had been her one taste of success and she is now trying to recapture that lost dream, ‘now that her life was just a long grey smear with no relief’. So their mother has artistic aspirations and is writing a play based on her life ‘with snippets expanded, exaggerated, explained or remedied’, which she makes the family enact regularly

The children are forced to grow up rather quickly and become self-reliant. When they realise that their parents will never get back together again and that having a bad father is still somehow better than having no father at all and being made wards of court, so they resolve to help their mother find a new husband. This quest, in essence, forms the bulk of the book and leads to all sorts of hilarious and almost implausible situations. Of course, their mother makes her own disastrous mistakes in the process, they become even poorer and need to move out of their house, but there is a semi-happy ending.

I love the breezy, matter-of-fact style in which the narrator tells us about quite bad instances of suffering and neglect, the descriptions of bad housekeeping, haphazard pet ownership, no cooking and disastrous experiments with the washing machine. The scene with the two sisters going to London on their own to get additional anti-depressants for their mother was particularly harrowing, despite the bonus trip to the London Zoo.  The mother’s downward spiral will sound worryingly familiar to anyone who has ever suffered from depression, especially when combined with parenting worries or bad divorces. This felt like the more satirical, less dramatic (and perhaps less deep) version of Claire King’s ‘The Night Rainbow’ (it also shows the difference between rural France and ‘little’ England).

It’s a wonderful recreation of a period in recent history – the 1970s, with spot-on observations and sly asides – yet it has a much older feel to it, an innocence and freedom to roam perhaps better suited to the 1950s. As for the children, their wit and self-sufficiency, their curious mix of worldliness and naivety, reminded me of ‘The Treasure Seekers’ or ‘The Railway Children’. They write letters to all male candidates in the neighbourhood (regardless whether they are married or not) and invite them to visit under various pretexts. This deadpan humour is very charming and stops the story from descending into sentimentality:

Our aim had been that they should have a drink and then have sex in her sitting room and do it enough times until they got engaged and then married. But we’d let him slip through our fingers with bad planning and shoddy execution. And though we agreed Mr Lomax wasn’t the ideal, we evaluated our efforts as if he had been, even though he most definitely hadn’t. It had been a mistake, we agreed, not to have offered any snacks or put on any music, and this might have led to Mr Lomax feeling uncomfortable and probably peckish and if there was one thing I knew for definite about men it was that they cannot perform sex if hungry.

LelivrequifaitaimerFrançoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

This is a graphic book for children (and grown-ups) listing all the advantages of reading, owning and loving books in a fun, irreverent way which will appeal especially to the less avid readers (like my younger son). Some reviewers have found it a bit repetitive and silly, but our views as adults really don’t matter: my children loved it and it’s such a fun idea. It’s full of schoolchildren’s slang, so perhaps it’s funnier in the original French, but it has been translated into English and is available from Walker children’s books.

No need for me to waffle on about it, let me just show you a couple of my favourite pages to give you a flavour:

Books don't make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand  pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books don’t make you fat: Mille feuille (literal translation: a thousand pages/leaves): 1000 calories. 1000 page book: 0 calories.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: 'Pass the salt' before and after reading.
Books help build your vocabulary. Example: ‘Pass the salt’ before and after reading.

 

Last Day of Holidays!

SnowCastlesNot that I am ungrateful for the time I get to spend with my children…

But perhaps I simply try to cram too much into the holidays…

Perhaps I overestimate their and my capacity for wonder, social interaction and quality time…

Perhaps I underestimate the amount of time it takes me to write even something as simple as a blog post, a book review or a letter for French administration, let alone a novel. OK, maybe the French letter is marginally more complex than a novel.

Perhaps there are other things weighing my spirit down and it’s really not fair to take it out on them.

Anyway, I’ve tried to pre-empt this by gearing my reading and writing matter this month towards the light, easy and colourful. Among my reads: Cara Black, Sarah Caudwell and Ben Hatch’s hilarious road-trip across France.

AwesomeLegoAnd I try to tell myself that somewhere, somehow, amidst the repeated requests to do homework, to tidy up, to come down for dinner, there might be some golden childhood memories building up…

Old Friends

Like the comfort of twenty-year walks
We slip in that familiar pace
Our feet match up
Our faces, our minds.

You know me so well.
No need to finish the objects, the verbs.
No need to stem the flow
Or soften the blow.
One eyebrow raised gives the game away
And we burst in giggles as we did before.

No game this,
Just hearts meeting,
Sharing life and wonders.
Harbour for each other.

This poem about dear friends is a tribute to Dave King, a good man, poet and friend, who regularly participated in dVerse Poets Pub