Book Review: A Perfect Mother

A Perfect Mother, by Katri Skala, explores the scars inflicted by family across generations. It opens in Trieste where a middle aged journalist, Jacob Bedford, has arrived to research an article he has been commissioned to write, about the city for a magazine. While there he plans to dig deeper into his family history. Jacob’s great-grandfather sent his last known communication from Trieste in 1938. Unlike other members of the Jewish family, his name is not on lists of holocaust victims.

Jacob is separated from his wife and doing his best to retain regular contact with his beloved teenage sons. He is familiar with the attention he garners from women and has indulged in many infidelities over the years. He recognises that his allure is fading as he ages. Desiring company he is pleased when Jane Worth, in Trieste with her book group to enjoy the Lucia Joyce connection, offers to buy him a drink. Jacob hopes for sex. What he receives is a story she offloads about an old friend, Charlotte, who is also in the city.

Charlotte has a difficult history involving her child, a mental breakdown and a wealthy, neglectful husband. She married to escape her mother who subsequently killed herself. Jane is a psychotherapist and met Charlotte professionally before becoming personally involved in her difficulties.

Jacob, Charlotte and Jane are drawn to each other, their lives intersecting in ways they did not predict. Back in England they keep in touch, coming together at Jane’s house in Gloucester where Charlotte offloads more painful memories. Jacob is frustrated by the role they have assigned him but is now caught in their web.

The writing ebbs and flows as family histories and their lasting impacts are revealed. Charlotte may be damaged but Jacob craves her attention. Jane’s concern for her friend may not be as selfless as it seems.

This is a complex tale of love and loyalties, of mental illness, the impact of loss and the fragility of trust. The protagonists each seek an identity, to perform their desired roles as good people. Hovering within their friendship is the question of how much of another’s thoughts, desires and motivations can ever be truly known or understood.

The unusual tense of the writing adds to the stark intensity of the portrayal. This is a literary thriller that does not baulk at challenging threads. Jacob’s multi layered thoughts on the unfolding situation are presented with relatable honesty. As a parent there is much to ponder, much of which is somewhat perturbing.

A dark tale with depth that draws the reader in. An impressive debut.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hikari Press.

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Book Review: Prodigal

Prodigal, by Charles Lambert, tells the story of the Eldritch family, the secrets and resentments that led to the adult children’s estrangement. It opens when Jeremy, the younger of the siblings, is in his fifties. He is living in a tiny apartment in Paris, making a meagre living writing erotic fiction under a pseudonym. He receives a call from his sister, Rachel, telling him that their father is dying. Somewhat reluctantly he returns to the family home in Kent.

Jeremy has been living in Paris since soon after his graduation, a move arranged by his mother for reasons to be revealed. Rachel stayed with their father, although soon married Denny and set up a stables business assisted by the family wealth. Denny left her a decade ago in the company of an employee. Rachel has been nursing her father through his final bout of ill health, yet another task she feels her brother should be showing greater appreciation of. Now that he has returned she wishes him to assist, yet grows jealous when anyone suggests that his actions are in any way generous.

The family history is presented in four parts. These cover: Jeremy’s return (2012); the period around their mother’s final days in Greece (1985); the weeks leading up to Jeremy’s departure (1977); their father’s death (2012). The reader learns that neither parent behaved with grace. Each also had their obvious favourites in their offspring. The atmosphere in the family home was toxic with violent undercurrents.

Rachel regards Jeremy as wilfully degenerate due to his preference for men and his occupation. She is bitter and angry that her family have not conformed to her desired way of living. Jeremy has largely avoided thinking about his family since he was encouraged to move away. He has had to cope with the tragedy of lost lovers and the knowledge that his writing is regarded by many with derision. The few times he and Rachel have got together over the years highlighted their differences and ended in acrimony.

The author is a skilled wordsmith, fully engaging the reader whilst revealing the family’s history from each of the key players points of view. There is empathy but also recognition that these are flawed individuals, that ripples are created when indulging in prodigal behaviour. Family members have the ability to hurt each other so much more deeply than other acquaintances.

A tale that will resonate with any whose family does not conform to their personal ideal. An alluring and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.

Click on the image above to look inside Prodigal

Book Review: The Hope Fault

I enjoyed Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gauntso was happy when I received an early review copy of this, her second book. It is written in three sections and introduces the reader to an unusual family setup.

The protagonist is Iris who, over the course of a weekend, is organising the clearance of her old family holiday home in Cassetown, New Zealand. Farr has reimagined the Busselton suburb of Vasse as the location for her story. It is an up and coming area close to beaches and the Margaret River wine region. This is significant as the house was considered an investment by Iris’s ex-husband, Paul, when they made the purchase. It is he who wishes to sell. The proceeds will enable him to acquire a dream home to share with his second wife, Kristin, and their new baby girl.

I mentioned that the family set up is unusual. Arriving at the house with Iris is her grown up son, Kurt, back from university for the holidays. They bring with them fifteen year old Luce, the daughter of Iris’s best friend, Marti. Paul and Kristin arrive later in the day, with their recently born and much loved daughter, to help with the house clearance. Marti, Paul’s twin sister, will arrive the next day. All of these characters consider themselves family and appear to get on well. Iris has set aside the antagonism she once felt towards Kristin whose affair with Paul precipitated the breakdown of their marriage.

The first and third sections of the book are told from these characters’ points of view, the voice regularly shifting to enable the reader to better understand the effect of their words and actions on the others. In the background is Rosa, Iris’s elderly mother who lives in a care facility back in the city. The middle section of the book tells Rosa’s life story, moving through time from the present day to her birth.

There are many threads running through the tale. Geologists and map makers who work with the earth’s fault lines feature. These details are used as a metaphor for the fault lines running through the family. There is artistry: Kurt’s drawing; Luce’s music; Rosa’s writing; Iris’s embroidery. There are also dependencies – on alcohol and eating habits – alongside attention seeking and its effect. Kurt and Luce are particularly well rendered as they push for greater autonomy and privacy, the exasperation young adults feel towards the older generation is understood and conveyed.

The first section of the book covers the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, with the cast assembling and settling in. The narrative is kept sparse yet much is portrayed. Paul has decided that a final party will be held to which Iris has acquiesced. Through a first night dinner, the start of packing boxes and the arrival of party attendees the cast’s mindsets are unpeeled, their attitudes shared. My engagement in the story faltered as the second afternoon progressed but picked up as further threads were developed.

The second section, Rosa’s story, adds substance to the various histories so far revealed. What comes through is the way the elderly are treated, as if they have always been old, lacking in aspiration and individualism. With nearly one hundred years to cover only glimpses are given. The milestones of Rosa’s restless life contain secrets, achievements and a pivotal disloyalty. This relationship is given more pages than I felt it needed. I would have preferred more on how Rosa’s younger self came to be.

The third section returns to the holiday home and covers the Sunday and Monday of the weekend. Events of the previous night brought out a variety of irritations and weaknesses in the family members, yet most accept these as facets of people they love anyway. Iris worries about Kurt who is facing his demons. Luce is harbouring a secret, her mood volatile and resistant.

The rolling perspectives work well in portraying the mundane and how this affects different temperaments. Decisions made by adults as for the best have caused long term damage in their offspring that they struggle to articulate. What is regarded by the adults as an accepted weakness, a part of what makes the person as they are, is observed with disdain by their children.

Yet this remains a celebration of acceptance, the faults of each family member acknowledged and at times fretted over but not held against. By taking the reader through Rosa’s life we see that the children will move on, look back, and come to better comprehend. Eventually they too will see only an elderly relative in someone who was once a figurehead.

The writing offers touches of brilliance, insights that deserve further consideration. Although I found the pacing sporadic in places, my engagement wandering before once again being drawn in, the structure and premise provide an original take on family love, loyalty and affirmation. This is a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aardvark Bureau.

Book Review: Educated

I am generally wary of manuscripts bought by a big publisher for a vast sum of money. To recoup the investment there will likely be a wide ranging publicity campaign to ensure the book crosses as many reader’s radars as possible. I question if I am hearing about it because it is well written and worth reading or because it has been cleverly promoted. Whilst recognising that the publisher would not have made the purchase had they not believed in its potential commercial success, I can be a tad cynical about literary worth.

With Educated I was also wary of it being a memoir, not a genre I am drawn to, having been disappointed by the inventions and exaggerations that came to light after publication of such titles as A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea. Veracity matters if the reader is being asked to accept the words as fact, a work of non fiction, if they are to engage with the author having experienced the story being shared.

What drew me to Educated were the questions the author was asking about how to define oneself having escaped from a family whose existence revolved around a religious belief. As I know from my upbringing in Troubled Belfast, the complex emotions of family loyalty and love are severely tested when measured against the damaging indoctrination of a trusting child. Added to this, the religion in Educated is Mormonism whose tenets, as I understand them, appear at odds with the psychological well-being of, particularly, women. The author’s father was also an end of the world survivalist. I was sufficiently intrigued.

The story is told in three parts: childhood; Tara’s first years away from the family home at the largely Mormon, Brigham Young University; her continuing education at Cambridge in England and, briefly, Harvard. Throughout she is trying to find a way to live within the confines of her family’s blinkered faith whilst discovering that there are other, more rational, ways of thinking.

The first section takes up about half the book. Tara was raised in Idaho, on land owned by her wider family, many of whom lived nearby. Her father earned his money from selling scrap metal and building barns. Her mother added to the family coffers by selling herbal medicines and practising as an unlicensed midwife. Father did not trust the government and believed that the end of the world was imminent. He stockpiled food, fuel and weapons, did not register his younger children’s births and kept them from attending school. The seven siblings were expected to help out at home, including in the scrapyard where many accidents occurred. Even the worst injuries were treated by Mother. Modern medicine was regarded as poison. If God wanted people to live they would be cured with faith, salves and tinctures.

By the time Tara reached puberty one of her brothers had become unbalanced – possibly due to brain damage following one of the many accidents the children suffered, or perhaps inherited mental instability – and viciously attacked her each time he doubted her purity, such as if she talked to a boy. To survive she learned to switch off from the emotional and physical pain inflicted, exacerbated by the knowledge that her parents would not accept that their son was wreaking such damage. By this time several of her older siblings had got away, including one to college despite the limitations of being largely self-taught. He encouraged Tara to follow the same course.

The second section details the years the author spent at BYU where she began to learn of the world history her family had ignored or skewed to support their prejudices. Each time she returned to their home she was put under pressure to conform. A good Mormon woman will marry, submit to her husband and bear his children. A university degree is not required for such a future.

Despite her lack of formal education, Tara wins a scholarship to study at Cambridge, which is covered in the final section of the book. It is here that she begins to truly find herself beneath the many layers of guilt and self-blame that her family inflicted throughout her formative years. Still though she hopes to reconcile the dual aspects of her life. The mental toll this takes proves devastating.

Up until this point the writing is fluent and compelling. Although a memoir it reads as a story, a page turner that is effortlessly engaging. The final few chapters feel more typically memoir, with a slower pace and repeated reflections. A conclusion was required and is achieved but left me wondering how much of Tara’s story was left untold.

Occasionally the narrative points to notes that draw attention to discrepancies in Tara’s memories compared to those of other family members. When the contents of emails are shared it is made clear that these have been paraphrased. I ponder how much has been edited to avoid legal repercussions. Names have been changed but such a closed community will recognise themselves within this self limiting world, presented through a troubled lens.

Tara’s achievements are admirable and her story is well written and worth reading. I remain aware that, as with any personal memories, their curation will be coloured by the circumstances in which they are shared.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson.

 

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: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Wildfire.

Book Review: The Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law