Book Review: Her Mother’s Daughter

Her Mother’s Daughter, by Alice Fitzgerald, tells the story of a woman’s unravelling from the points of view of both her and her young daughter. It is a tense and often uncomfortable read yet is chillingly compelling. The depiction of the mother as seen through her daughter’s eyes will likely give any parent pause for thought as they try to instil in their offspring what they consider acceptable behaviour.

The tale opens in 1997. Clare is ten years old and her little brother, Thomas, is six. They live in London with their mummy, Josephine, and their daddy, Michael. It is nearly the summer holidays and Clare is counting down the days until they travel to Ireland. Each year they go to stay with her daddy’s relatives, spending long, carefree days playing with their cousins. This year they are also to visit her mummy’s parents for the first time. Clare is excited about meeting grandparents as those on her daddy’s side are dead.

Josephine is considered beautiful but has put on weight since she had her children. She is constantly dieting and frets over Clare’s girth. Determined to raise children she can be proud of she berates them for any ill-mannered or exuberant behaviour. When they show happiness at being with their daddy, who allows them treats and to relax and play as they wish, Josephine feels sidelined and resentful.

Clare is on constant alert for her mother’s moods which are volatile and oppressive. She enjoys the evenings they spend as a family when her parents drink, dance and appear happy. Michael does what he can to help his wife but must work long hours to provide for his family. He tells the children that the holiday in Ireland is just what they all need.

The timeline goes back to 1980 when Josephine left Ireland. She carried with her a memory from the night her little brother was born, a terrible secret she tried to share with her mother at the time but was told never to talk of again. Free from the drudgery inflicted on her as the eldest sibling, by a mother who never showed her the love she longed for, Josephine relishes her new life in London. When she meets Michael she determines to create for them the home she craved.

The fallout from that pivotal night in Ireland is hinted at but never fully explained. Likewise exactly what Josephine tells Michael before they marry remains hazy. What is clear is that Josephine feels she is shouldering a burden that nobody else acknowledges or understands. She feels underappreciated in the home she has worked so hard to make clean and desired.

In attempting to warn Clare of the darker side of life as a woman, and to encourage her daughter to show some gratitude for the sacrifices Josephine considers she has made, the mother frightens her child and transfers many demons. Josephine appears blind to the unfairness and potential damage caused by her behaviour, so caught up is she in her own discontent.

The holiday in Ireland is mostly fun for the children whilst with Michael’s family but turns sour when Josephine must confront the parents and siblings she has not seen for seventeen years. Clare and Thomas struggle to fathom the darkening atmosphere, and then the crisis that follows them back to London. Their mother struggles to hold in her anger at the gift of a puppy she didn’t want but is expected to care for.

“All day it’s at it. Clawing for a piece of me, like the rest of them. There will be none of me left.”

Although Josephine’s parenting may appear toxic it is hard not to feel some sympathy. The question remains as to what damage it will have inflicted on Clare.

The child’s voice is mostly well done for the ten year old depicted. The underlying tension is well balanced with moments of happiness which are transient and brittle. Neither Michael nor Thomas are fully developed – the story is about the women.

This is a deft evocation of the damage caused by family. It is a disturbing yet engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Book Review: The Last Hours

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters, heralds the welcome return of a highly regarded author who has not published a new novel in more than a decade. In discussing why, she said:

 “To be honest, I got to the point where I was beginning to be so stressed out and needed a break. I’m a very slow writer, and then I get stressed out with publicity and the whole business of getting a book out. And then it’s people’s expectations. I suddenly felt that I needed a life.”

Unlike her previous work this new book is historical fiction. In talking about her change of direction the author admitted she had grown tired of the genre where she made her name:

“I love to innovate and, while it pleases me greatly that I’ve helped create the genre of psychological crime fiction, I’d be going against my nature if I didn’t look towards different horizons,”

The Last Hours is the first in a proposed two part series set in and around Dorset where the author now lives.

 “Each time I leave my house, I know that somewhere beneath my feet is a plague pit,”

It offers a captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for lords and serfs in England, 1348, living in fear of a wrathful god and facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days.

The story opens on a hot summers day in the demesne of Develish, Dorsetshire. The lord of the manor, Sir Richard, is setting out on a journey to seal the betrothal of his fourteen year old daughter, Eleanor, to Peter of Bradmayne, the son of a neighbouring lord. Eleanor is unhappy with this choice of husband and blames her mother, Lady Anne, for not securing a more congenial match. She takes out her anger on their indentured serfs, particularly the handsome bastard son of a bondsman, Thaddeus Thurkell.

Sir Richard and his entourage travel to Bradmayne where their host plies Sir Richard with copious quantities of food and drink as he tries to relieve him of the promised dowry. Sir Richard’s Norman fighting men stand guard while his Saxon bailiff, Gyles Startout, observes what is happening beyond the manor’s boundary wall. The villagers are restless and prevented from entering. After several days their unrest turns to fear. There is news of a deadly sickness spreading from the port of Melcombe. While only the peasants are dying few seem to care but when Peter of Bradmayne takes ill the Develish men flee.

Lady Anne had long worked behind her cruel and selfish husband’s back to improve the lives of their serfs. When she hears of the sickness she recognises the danger and acts in all their interests. The entire village moves into the manor which is protected by a moat. Food is stockpiled and the bridge is burned. None know if any inside already carry the plague.

As time passes fear of sickness is only one of the challenges Lady Anne must overcome to maintain order. Food distribution must be carefully controlled and the boredom of people used to days filled with hard labour assuaged. Eleanor meanwhile is appalled that her mother has taken to dressing plainly and working with their serfs. Lady Anne has promoted Thaddeus to the role of steward and Eleanor does not feel he pays her the respect she considers her due. Believing herself above common law she seeks out vile entertainments.

Beyond Develish, villages are being wiped out by death or abandonment. Travellers pose a danger as food is scarce and symptoms of the plague take days to show. There are also lords travelling with their fighting men eager to acquire, by whatever means, anything of value left in the chaos. Lady Anne must use artifice and the loyalty of her people to keep them safe. With each success and acclaim for the brave, Eleanor grows more bitter and unhinged. Lady Anne recognises that they cannot live in this way for long, that some must venture out for news and supplies or her people will starve.

This is a broad, sweeping tale that transports the reader back to a time when few serfs would ever venture beyond the demesne in which they were born. They were property whose purpose was to be worked for the benefit of their lord. Even the gentry were tied to those ranked above them. The church was feared and sickness regarded as punishment. Lady Anne is way ahead of her time in understanding the need for cleanliness and in questioning the edicts of the clergy. She recognises that serfs who survive the plague will be few yet required to till the land. Ownership will, for a time, be in flux.

The various characters’ lives are presented in a manner that is relatable. Differences to today may be great but there are many parallels. The writing is masterful and consistently engaging. The author has lost none of her abilities to enthral her readers.

I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed. It offers more than fictionalised social history, it is high quality entertainment. I am already looking forward to its sequel.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Author quotes taken from this article: Minette Walters announces first book in decade – and retirement from crime fiction | Books | The Guardian

 

Book Review: Neurotribes

neurotribes

“If normal is being selfish, being dishonest, having guns and waging war, I do not want any of it.”

Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, is a wide ranging exploration of the history of autism and society’s attitude to those living with the diagnosis. It is a book about the condition but also about people, their fears and prejudices. Autistics have long been branded as diseased and inferior. They are not necessarily uncomfortable with themselves, it is others who are uncomfortable with them.

The book is divided into chapters which take the reader back to well before clinicians gave the condition a name. It introduces significant individuals from history whose discoveries and inventions shaped the world we know today but whose behaviours were deemed eccentric. The point is made that, should a cure for autism be found, scientific progress may be stymied. These people think differently, and it is that which could be regarded as their strength.

For centuries those who would not, or could not, behave as demanded by rigid, social rules were condemned to institutions. These individuals were damaged by the experience and had little chance of ever becoming contributing members of society. Those whose parents refused to bow to demands to give up on their misfits could work on finding a way to live in a world they struggled to make sense of.

“imagine the child’s reaction to the futility of living in an incomprehensible world run by what must appear to him to be demanding, ritualistic, arbitrary and inconsistent psychotics”

Parents of autistic children mourn the child they expected to have, desperate to have their beloved offspring fit in to a culture preoccupied with mass consumption and vacuous spectacle. They grasp at any straws which may offer a cure when what the autistic child wants is to find a way to communicate their needs and to be accepted as they are. There is much adult hand wringing over a child’s inability to make friends, even when the child appears happy with their solitary preoccupations. Little thought is given to why the child would wish to befriend those who mercilessly tease and bully them for being different.

“Left to his own devices, Robert might not have experienced himself as mentally ill at all, though he certainly could have developed an anxiety disorder from being perpetually grilled by men with clipboards.”

In the twentieth century psychiatry entered the mainstream of medicine and children labelled mentally retarded were studied. In Vienna, a pediatrician named Hans Asperger worked with a tight knit team of staff to find ways of engaging with unusual children. He dubbed these young people his little professors. His work was neglected until recently due to outside events. In America, the Eugenics Society was promoting the idea that those diagnosed as mentally deficient should be sterilized or even eliminated for the good of future humankind. Another Viennese, Adolf Hitler, took these ideas to extremes, but he was far from the only advocate of removing undesirables from the gene pool.

The cruelties inflicted on those deemed retarded make for depressing reading. From those autistics who are now adults and who, thanks to the advent of the internet, can be more widely heard, we learn that they view what would be regarded as normal behaviour as incomprehensible. One lady stated that she felt all her life like an anthropologist observing human interactions from a distance, straining to find meaning. She also pointed out that when autistics get together they can make sense of each other.

“the same behaviours that had been viewed for so long as inherently antisocial could become social in a group of autistic adults, particularly if there were no clinicians around to pronounce them pathological.”

The scope of the book and the detail offered make this a fascinating if sometimes challenging read. There is a great deal to take in but the central theme is constant – difference needs more acceptance. There has not been an autism epidemic, merely an expansion of the diagnosis. Autism is not a modern issue caused by vaccines, pollution or processed food, neither is it a fate worse than death. Autistics can lead full and happy lives if, just like the rest of society, they are welcomed in their community.

Difference is endemic yet so much effort is expended to promote a particular set of behaviours. By expounding on the damage this attitude has caused over centuries readers are encouraged to think differently themselves. Those raising neurodiverse children require and deserve more mainstream support. A varied society is scientifically and culturally richer, and this should be celebrated, not suppressed.