Mother: A Memoir, by Nicholas Royle, is what it says on the cover – the author’s memories of his mother. These are not presented in a linear manner. Rather, they are reminiscences – echoes – that, realistically, cannot include every thought and feeling from each incident recalled. The portrayal of the mother alters a little with each retelling. What emerges is an impression of a spirited woman who was many things – as people are. In looking at her through the eyes of her son, several decades after her death, the reader becomes aware of how much he venerated her. Whilst acknowledging what others may regard as flaws, he saw her influence over the family and many of those who knew her.
Kathleen McAdam came from Scottish lineage and remained close to her wider family throughout her life. She was a nurse, continuing to work after the birth of her two sons. Kathleen married Maxwell Royle. Maxwell was the son of artists yet attended a public school. They had contacts amongst the famous of the time. Their boys were raised to free range but in relative privilege.
As a mother, Kathleen supported her children’s chosen pursuits, fiercely guarding their interests from any complaints made about their activities. Her conversation drew in many of the friends they brought to the house. At no time in this memoir does her son raise any suggestion of resentment over what she expected of him in terms of time and attention.
Another picture that emerges of Kathleen is that of her sitting at the kitchen table – chain smoking, doing crosswords or reading. There is mention of her love life and how she flirted with admirers – Maxwell may also have had a dalliance. Their son offers no hint of what he thought of this at the time or later.
The memoir opens with the impact on the family of Kathleen’s descent into dementia – an illness that led to her slow demise. The author ponders if this could have been precipitated by the death of his brother. This latter tragedy changed all of their lives. The dynamic woman became a shell of herself, existing but without her trademark spark or energy.
Chapters offer not just memories of Kathleen but of the family – at home and on travels. Details are provided of their ancestry including photographs of previous generations. Nicholas and his brother, Simon, were close to cousins and regularly visited their relatives. The impression offered is one of time capsuled properties with space to roam and menageries of animals. Although appreciative, the descriptions make no attempt to make this upbringing appear idyllic.
Mention is made of misbehaviour – of expulsions from school and experiments verging on the cruel. Punishments at home, if they happened, are not disclosed.
The complexity of family life comes through in the short chapters and recollections of changing scenes across many decades. Although there is obvious emotion, particularly in dealing with illness and death, much of the writing is framed as factual.
And this is the book’s strength. The reader is left to form their own impressions. It matters not what they think of Kathleen. This is her story told from her surviving son’s perspective. It would appear that, until the end, to him she was everything he needed her to be.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Myriad Editions.