“I am not listening out for the same pitch or cadence, I am listening out, always acutely, to the differences. These, I know, tell me exactly where home is and all the spaces in between.”
Davina Quinlivan describes herself as of diverse cultural heritage. Her forebears are of Irish, Burmese, Portuguese and Indian descent. Within each ethnicity are other minglings as, throughout time, people have emigrated for work or safety, blending to create new identities. Her father was born in Rangoon but lived in England for most of his adult life. Davina was raised within a close, multi-generational family scattered around the West London area, being told the stories of her relatives’ early experiences in distant parts of the world that have since changed borders and names as colonisers secede. There has never been enough money for them to make return visits to those left behind.
Shalimar is a memoir that explores what the links between home and family mean. It opens with a defining incident in her father’s childhood, made all the more poignant as he has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Davina and her husband have been living with her parents for the past six years. They now decide to move away, to settle in their own place. Over the course of the stories being shared they move from London to Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and finally Devon. In the intervening years they have two children, and Davina’s father dies.
Grief, for someone with terminal cancer, begins before the actual death. Davina writes of denial, of running away from what she knows is inevitable, and of how she copes when it happens. Her life in London mostly revolved around the streets where she and her relatives lived. Once moved away she starts to use walking as a coping mechanism rather than a way to simply travel. She discovers the beauty and sensation of nature, the comfort to be found there.
“Even if you pull a tree out of the ground, its roots will have threaded through the other trees around it and will go on providing a scaffolding to the living systems it has dwelled within for years to come.”
Although there is obvious fondness and gratitude for the stability they offered, observations and anecdotes from wider family get togethers are entertaining and recognisable. Being related, especially through marriage, doesn’t necessarily mean being liked.
“In truth, there was a subtle history of unspoken tension between these two sides of my family, which followed them to England. Both families had known each other in India and Burma, but they were very different … These differences would manifest themselves at family gatherings, never openly admitted, but there in the way they interacted with each other. Everyone would be measuring each other’s behaviour.”
Many of the author’s musings focus on how a person is shaped not just by personal history but also by the histories of parents, and they by theirs’. In her children she recognises features they have inherited from both sides of their family. She ponders what they carry forward of her late father.
Quinlivan’s own experiences include the influence of aunts, uncles and grandparents. For example, she remembers, as a young child, being taught to swear in Burmese.
“Though a little blunt and inappropriate, it was a lesson really: in her own way, she was teaching me to be armoured, to be fierce.”
Davina may not have moved as far as her forbears to resettle but the new lands she encounters have similar issues. Ownership is asserted by the powerful not because of love of place but for the right to plunder its wealth. As she walks through fields and woodland she observes how everything eventually goes back to the earth or sea from whence it came. The great oak trees planted when ships were built from them remind her of the journeys her family made to get to England.
“this book is not my ship, it is my father’s, carrying my family safely within it, through all the little gaps in space and time.”
The prose in places is dreamlike and poetic. The grief the author feels is palpable. There is humour and love aplenty but what comes to the fore is how much a part of everything everything is. We are affected by an ecosystem whether or not we acknowledge it.
A hauntingly beautiful memoir that evokes the multiple layers that exist in people and place. An appreciation of life in its myriad incarnations.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.