#20BooksofSummer: No. 14 – The Home-Maker

It’s been nearly a hundred years since The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher was published (1924) and I wish I could say that more had changed in the meantime. Sadly, if the recent (ongoing) pandemic has proved anything, it is that the traditional division of labour within the household is still alive and kicking and gender inequality in the workplace is on the rise again. So this book was radical in its day, but still has a lot to tell us about gender roles and ‘parenting instincts’ in the present day. What is revolutionary about Fisher’s work is that she sees domestic work as undervalued and soul-crushing regardless of who does it:

The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be ‘seen to’ by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential qualities in every one of us.

Eva Knapp is a force of nature, an energetic and driven woman, but she is not a natural mother. Described at some point by her husband as ‘a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden’ or ‘a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture’, she does not find her greatest fulfilment in domestic tasks and childrearing, but feels it’s her duty to do her best for her family. The author shows remarkable insight about subjects which even now seem to be taboo for a mother to admit.

These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings.

We’ve all been there, Eva love! Needless to say, she cannot admit anything like failure, so doesn’t discuss any of this with anyone. Instead, she sticks rather grimly to her daily tasks, prefering cleaning and cooking rather than actually talking to the children, much like present-day mums driving their children from one after-school activity to another. She fusses over the children’s health and over her youngest’s wayward ways and is heartily dissatisfied with her husband Lester. Nobody in the family is happy but they don’t know or expect any different.

Meanwhile, Lester is a bit of a dreamer and a poet, unhappy with his work in finance in the local department store, not overly ambitious. He feels he is missing out on his children, but doesn’t dare to interfere with Eva’s iron fist rule over the domestic domain.

He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter of his own children… Lester never doubted that his wife loved her children with all the passion of her fiery heart, but there were times when it occurred to him that she did not like them very well – not for long at a time, anyhow.

When he is kicked out of his job, he feels like a complete failure and seriously considers suicide – his last act of love for his family, or so he believes. That way, they could at least get his insurance money; but this is of course not the case if the cause of death is suicide, so he has to make it look like an accident.

Sure enough, an accident occurs (deliberate or not?) and poor Lester is incapacitated, so Eva has to become the main breadwinner. This role reversal suits the family perfectly: Eva has a real talent for business, while the children thrive under Lester’s benign parenting (and considerably lower demands of cleanliness and gourmet cooking). But what will the neighbours think? Is their small town ready for such a revolutionary role swap?

Of course, this book is reflective of its time, in that it doesn’t really offer a creative solution for both partners that is sustainable in the long-term. The couple are still not really talking to each other, although they are each secretly pleased with their new role. They are not really brave enough to break out of the mould just yet. The book is about more than just gender division of labour and this is what makes it feel fresh even today: reminding us to slow down, enjoy what we have and not allow ourselves to be pressured into society’s definition of ‘success’. Having seen so many cases of dual-career couples (in academia, among expats) where the woman has had to give up her career to follow the husband, and finds it difficult to admit even to herself just how bitter and dissatisfied that makes her, I would say the novel still has many many recognisable moments and messages.

You can find more reviews of The Home-Maker from Vishy, the Captive Reader, and Juliana Brina. It was reissued by Persephone eight years or so ago, and has become one of its most popular titles, but I’ve come late to it.

What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

Domestic Bliss

I take out the bin for pocket-money. It’s only 10p, she tells me it’s all she can afford. We both hold onto the washing machine for its spin-cycle rock’n’roll. Unhung pictures have collected weeks’ worth of dust, but we vacuum – now and then – and she scrubs. She’s taught herself to program thermostats, heating, even TV, but parental locks are beyond her. So my brother chats inappropriately with Tibetan monks and louche gamesters in France late into the night. She leaves the room quickly when the Skype jingle heralds another call from our dad. She tells us she is learning so much new stuff, foists recipes upon us too exotic for our tastes. Luckily, every two weeks we relax for a couple of days with Dad’s frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets galore.

Doorbell dings. ‘We’ve noticed your patio could do with some cleaning – we kill weeds, pressure wash, spray and all.’ I don’t know why she shakes her head smiling feebly, nor why she leans quite so closely on the door she slams behind them.

Overgrown, from bbc.com

My scabs grow new scabs –

each layer a way

to pave my path out of hell

into good intentions but

I scratch till fresh bleed.

 

 

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?’

Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies

I’m a latecomer to the charms of Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s slick, compelling novels. Winner of the 2015 Davitt Award for Australian crime fiction for adults, Big Little Lies was originally published as just Little Lies in the UK, just to confuse matters further. I saw it being highly praised by bloggers I trust, like Cleo, That’s What She Read  , TripFiction, Elena and on the Shiny New Books site. Margot even featured Big Little Lies in her ‘In the Spotlight’ series, which gave me the final push to pick it up at the local library.

big-little-lies-liane-moriartyIt is perfect for parents everywhere, although the Australian setting gives it an extra twist. [No hedge fund manager parent in Britain would have sent their child to the local state school.] Anyone who’s taken a child to school in recent years will laugh or wince in recognition: the author packs in so many cringeworthy moments – the yummy mummies and their gossip, the PTA power, the party invitations being handed out in the playground, the petitions going round the school, the overwhelmed teachers and principals. It’s perfect book club fodder: there’s even a book club featured in its pages! And I love the expression: ‘Oh, calamity!’

Yet underneath the humour and instantly recognisable ‘types of parents’, there is real drama, tragedy and moments of subtle psychological insight. I detected a certain similarity in style with fellow Australian Helen Fitzgerald: fearless, candid, humorous but underlying seriousness. In this book it’s all about bullying and lying (to one’s self and to others), about maintaining a façade when your heart is breaking, about the everyday worries so many of us experience and yet we have to carry on. The characterisation is pitch-perfect. I could perhaps relate to the warm-hearted but sometimes terribly interfering and loud Madeline slightly more than to her two friends, shy Jane and inexplicably vague golden girl Celeste, but I enjoyed reading from each character’s point of view and even secondary characters revealed unexpected depths.

The most memorable recent books I’ve read which fit into this category are: Claire Mackintosh’s I See You, Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, Tammy Cohen’s When She Was Bad. They rely not so much on plot twists and gradual reveal (although they all have them), but on the ‘chattiness factor’. I have a theory about why books such as these are so popular. I call them ‘chat crime’ (to coin a new phrase) and they straddle comfortably genres such as chick lit and psychological thriller. They are the comfort food of crime fiction:  enough suspense and mystery to keep you turning the pages, but also recognisable situations galore, characters in predicaments which you can relate to. Easy, smooth style, slides down the reading throat a treat, and very moreish. You feel you could read another one like it in quick succession. I also wonder what percentage of readers of psychological thrillers are women between the ages of 26 and 46 of a certain level of education and affluence, who will recognise themselves very easily in these pages. It feels like the stories we all tell each other when we get together on a ‘Mums’ night out’.

Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.
Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.

I am by no means belittling this kind of crime fiction. I enjoyed it immensely (and cried a little at the tales of Madeline’s woes with Abigail, her teenage daughter from her previous marriage) and read it in just one day. And we all know that the prose which feels most ‘natural’ and ‘unworked upon’ is the hardest to write! I’m just aware that I need to alternate this kind of reading with other, more challenging literature (written from points of view which are less familiar to me). Otherwise it’s just too easy to get trapped in your protected little bubble, like the parents of Pirriwee Public School.

I hear the book is being filmed as a TV mini-series, featuring Nicole Kidman as the statuesque Celeste, Shailene Woodley as fearful Jane and Reese Witherspoon as feisty Madeline.

 

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.

Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

nootherdarknessSarah Hilary has a talent for revisiting a topical theme and making something very unexpected out of it. In her debut crime fiction novel Someone Else’s Skin, it was about domestic violence. In this book it is about parenting and child protection. Let me be perfectly honest: this is not an easy book to read as a parent of young children. I had to put it aside at certain moments, to regain my composure.

DI Marnie Rome faces that most disturbing of cases: two dead children, buried for several years in an abandoned bunker, with a new development built on top. There are no clues to help identify the children – no one of similar age was reported missing in the area five years ago. How can a child simply fall through the cracks of the social system?

This is a solid police procedural, as well as a tense psychological thriller, so there is a lot of steady legwork and realistic step-by-step detecting involved. However, is Marnie allowing her own experience of foster siblings to colour her judgement of the family who lives in the house on the site where the bodies were found? We have a limited cast of characters (and suspects) and a fairly well-defined geographical location, which all add to the claustrophobia of the story.

You can imagine the emotional effect on me of the opening chapter describing the two little boys imprisoned in what will become their underground tomb, gradually realising that no one is coming to rescue them. I had a lump in my throat. This is writing which really pulls at your heartstrings, without sentimentality or cheap gimmicks. There have been recent debates about crime fiction focusing too much on graphic violence and sensationalism, to the detriment of compassion, but this book is full of deep caring for the victims and the people around them.

Bunker
Swiss bunker, from Inhabitat.com

There are some other intriguing elements here as well, such as the ‘preppers’ (people who believe in impeding apocalypse and therefore prepare themselves for it by sheltering in underground bunkers). I knew these people existed in the US, but was not aware they had arrived on British shores too. Of course, they would probably do best in Switzerland, where (by law) ‘every inhabitant must have a protected place (a bunker) that can be reached quickly from his place of residence”.

Well-written, well-observed, never simplistic or obvious, this is a strong follow-up from a writer I will certainly be keeping an eye on.

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.

 

My 150th book: Grégoire Delacourt

lalistedemesenviesToday I reached my reading target for the year: 150 books. So everything else from here on is a bonus. But what a book to finish my challenge on!

It’s the story of a family haunted by coldness, lack of communication, lack of love and overflow of sadness entitled (ironically) ‘On ne voyait que le bonheur’ (All you could see was the happiness) by Grégoire Delacourt, which has just been published this rentrée littéraire (the autumn publishing frenzy in France, just ahead of all the literary prizes). Delacourt is a PR specialist/copywriter who started writing at the age of 50. He achieved considerable success in France with his second novel ‘La Liste de mes envies’ (The List of My Desires) – which has since been adapted for the theatre and film – about a lottery-winner, and some notoriety with his third novel ‘La Premiere chose qu’on regard’, featuring a Scarlett Johansson double, which the American actress did not appreciate and for which she took the French publisher to court.

This fourth book is fiction, but you might be forgiven at first for thinking that it’s a misery memoir. It’s the story of a seemingly boring insurance expert nearing middle age, Antoine, who muses about his unhappy childhood and the impact it has had on his own life and parenting skills. But misery memoirs are miserable only when they are badly written; when deftly handled and improved by the lack of constraints of fiction, they transcend the specific details and allow the reader to identify with the universal emotions and truths expressed therein.

DelacourtIt starts off deceptively low-key. Antoine sounds like a pessimistic sod, but perhaps for good reason. His job is to investigate insurance claims and car accidents, making sure that the payout is minimal for the insurance company he works for. In the process, he has to ignore people’s heartbreak and suffering. He berates himself for being a coward, for not having any integrity, for not standing up for the oppressed little man. Bit by bit, through slivers of pictures and scenes from the more distant and more recent past, we discover his unhappy childhood. His parents were terribly mismatched: a cold, clinical father who never shared his heart or secrets or games with his children. A Madame Bovary type of mother, clinging to her illusions, cigarettes and Sagan novels. Twin sisters five years younger than him, much more his parents’ darling than he ever was – until the day when one of them dies in her sleep. The other twin then develops a strange speech impediment, losing half of her words, while the mother abandons the family, never getting in touch again. Antoine and his little sister cling to each other in a touching story of sibling love and protection.

So far so plausibly grim, you might think. In the first part of the book the first person narrator (Antoine) is addressing his son Leon, trying to explain how he ended up being the kind of father he was, how he met his future wife and Leon’s mother, how they tried to play at happy families for a while. There is a lot in the book about the gap between appearances and reality, between façade and the unhappiness or darkness lurking underneath. But then the book descends into the shocking, the unthinkable, and it becomes deeply disturbing. Especially to a parent. Most especially to a parent who feels not entirely confident that they are always providing their children with all the love, opportunities, attention and balance that they deserve. (So that would be all of us, then.) There are a lot of loving details in the memories Antoine has of his mother and yet:

Un jour, je lui ai demandé si elle m’aimait et elle a repondu à quoi ça sert. Aucun enfant ne devrait entendre ça. Ca m’a tué. Je veux dire, c’est ce qui a commencé à me tuer.

On day I asked her if she loved me and she replied: what’s the use. No child should have to hear that. It killed me. Or rather, that’s what started to kill me. (my translation)

Gregoire-Delacourt_1705The second part of the book is more about Antoine’s gradual redemption abroad, in an isolated and very poor part of the world, while the third part is written by his daughter Josephine. It’s a very powerful story about the fear of loving and the need to feel loved, but also about forgiveness, about understanding the reasons for extreme behaviours which we usually condemn. It was an emotionally wrenching read, but also strangely fascinating. I found myself unable to concentrate on much else until I had finished the book.

One final word on the author’s predilection for list-making. At many points in the book, you find whole pages of phrases or sentences repeating certain rhythms, words or structures. Of the type (my translation and slight cutting):

In the photos,  you can’t see how overcooked the fish was. You can’t see the false compliments: yes, it was perfect. You can see our new car. You can see me, stupidly proud, next to the car. You can see the Barbie tricycle. You can see Josephine and Nathalie in the bathtub. You can see Anna and her husband Thomas in our tiny garden, next to a faded hyacinth. You can’t see my mother. You can’t see the lies. You can’t see the baby that Nathalie hadn’t wanted to keep the year before because she wasn’t sure she loved me anymore. You can’t see my tears at the time. My nights spent on the couch. My insomnia. The beast that was awakening. All you could see was the happiness.

And there are many, many more like that throughout the book. Is Delacourt just being stylistically lazy, or does the gradual piling up of details and the repetitions add to the layering on of emotions? It’s certainly an effective way of presenting the disparate, almost pointillistic thoughts that both Antoine and his daughter have – reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique.

In summary, a haunting, compelling, gut-squeezing read, an opportunity to end my reading challenge with a bang, not a whimper!

completed