It’s been another busy reading week here. I never used to post this way, chatting about all the books that had attracted my attention during the week, and so I’ve never properly noticed how much I read. That probably sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen various accounts of why people read popping up over the blogosphere this week, and all I can say is that I read like I breathe. It just happens and the question of necessity, or quantity, doesn’t come into it.
First book up is The Savage Garden by Mark Mills. This was one of the big summer hits of last year, but I never manage to read books at the height of their popularity. I wanted a mental palate cleanser after all the research I’d done and for some unknown reason I find reading about people killing each other for gain far more relaxing than reading about them falling in love. In this book, although it was ostensibly a thriller, there was a bit of both and that turned out to be fine. The story concerns young Cambridge scholar, Adam Strickland, who arrives at a Tuscan villa in 1958 in order to study its haunting Renaissance garden. Inevitably he becomes bound up with the lives of the Docci family who live there and who suffered an enigmatic tragedy during the war, when one of the sons was shot under mysterious circumstances. The garden turns out also to be a monument to a long forgotten murder, and Adam cannot help but get involved in solving both crimes, despite the risks he then has to run. What makes this a good novel is the quality of the writing, which is elegant and sexy and brings to life the relations between the characters in very satisfying ways. It’s that enjoyable vehicle, an intelligent comfort read and they are more rare than you might think. And I was not at all influenced in my judgement by the heart-throb picture of the writer on the inside back cover. Nope, not at all.
After that it was back on the motherhood novels with The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy by Polly Williams. This novel was a far darker piece of writing than The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy and far more fraught with the potentially damaging effects of pregnancy on a woman’s self-esteem. The book’s heroine, Amy Crane, is heavily pregnant when, one fateful day in a London park, she happens to notice her partner kissing the arm of an unknown woman at a pavement café. This incident sets off all kinds of subterranean tremors in Amy’s mind, as her own father walked out on his family and never came back, leaving her with the indelible impression that men are liable to abandon their loved ones at any moment. So uncertain is she of her place in Joe’s heart that she does not confront him with what she saw, and both her state of mind and her actions are henceforth determined by this profound insecurity. Six months after the birth of her baby, Amy is tired, overweight and distinctly slummy. Cue the arrival in her life of a new girlfriend, Alice, who will help Amy to transform herself into the Yummy Mummy she longs to be. But of course, the transformation brings about its own problems in the shape of her flirtatious pilates instructor and then her relationship with Joe goes really pear-shaped. Ultimately, I felt this was a book about the way women really, truly hate themselves for not matching up to some distant cultural ideal. It’s also about the way that unexplained events in childhood continue to work their evil voodoo well into adulthood and are in fact often to be found lurking at the bottom of any excessive or irrational fear. And it was also, to my mind, a shocking lesson in how competitive and unforgiving women are of one another, still, despite everything feminism has ever thrown at them in the way of sisterly lifelines. There are some harsh caricatures drawn in this book, both of the vacuous, superficial and really quite aggressive Yummy Mummies, and also of the saggy, baggy stay-at-home mothers from Amy’s NCT classes, whose child-centric perspectives were represented as being as manic and self-serving as any other form of vanity.
What to make of all this angry unhappiness? I have a theory that when a child is born, a mother outsources a piece of her self. For all that culture tries to celebrate it, this is potentially a terrible thing, as that child contains a vital part of the mother that she cannot properly control, for which she is responsible and from which she is alienated. It’s a kind of madness. How can anyone, under such circumstances, center themselves in the way that is necessary to making good life decisions and acting with prescience and insight? This book presents two possible responses to the problem of motherhood, the first being to aggressively reclaim one’s ego by lavishing attention on the self in a way that is almost an undercover punishment, and which runs the risk of looking cold, hard, and selfish (the Yummies). The other is to glorify the child and pour one’s sense of self-worth into creating images of domestic bliss and maternal self-sacrifice that only emphasize the extent to which the woman has given up on herself (the NCT mothers). Amy, in between these two extreme groups, quietly has a third way, and that’s the keeping of secrets. I’m fascinated by how often the concept of the secret crops up in these novels. Mothers who want to stay sane need to maintain secret lives, where they stuff all the parts of themselves that are not congruent with maternal nurturing. Sometimes the racy and exciting parts get put there, like their need to feel desirable and attractive, sometimes, however, it’s melancholy, distressing things too. Amy’s secret is the glimpse she catches of her partner in an act that could be construed as infidelity. This secret almost causes the collapse of her relationship, and I think it’s possible she keeps it in order for it to do just that. Because Amy must have somewhere to put her need to feel it is okay to fail, that in fact, failure is inevitable, written into the very course of events. It’s one of the great unwritten edicts of motherhood that you don’t fail, that you adapt and manage and keep the show on the road like the trouper that you are. But this is one heck of a burden to carry around, and I think the way that husbands and children unwittingly trap women in the middle of their demands for unfailing, unflagging competence is the cause of much buried misery.
This thinking about secrets lead me to pick up next The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I am currently about halfway through. What a fabulous novel! So rich and lush and scrumptious and so painfully honest about women’s lives. I am tempted to write a full post on this one, but I’ll have to see how it goes next week. I’ll say no more about it for the moment. I’ve done a lot of reading about the Surrealists and dreams, none of which is really worthy of inclusion here, as it’s interesting in a literary historical kind of way but not exactly the first thing you’d pick up to read for pleasure. But I will mention briefly Samuel Beckett, whose novel The Unnameable has also been a significant part of the week’s reading. Beckett wrote a trilogy that began with Molloy and Malone Dies in which his central character becomes ever more incapable of movement and ever more alienated from recognizable reality until, in this final volume, he exists only as a voice, speaking from a no-place, without features or coordinates, through which the ghosts of others he has once been (including Molloy and Malone) pass by in confusing patterns. This has to be the hands down winner of the Most Bizarre Book Ever Award, and believe you me, I have had some contenders for that particular prize. The voice has just created a fantasy in which he is a legless torso, stuck in an earthenware pot as if he were a strange kind of plant, with a neighbour opposite who throws a tarpaulin over him on the nights it snows. It’s a testimony to Beckett’s extraordinary narrative skills that he can write this impossible, inexplicable narrative and manage to hold my attention and make me ask all sorts of questions. I think of the voice at the moment as the voice of consciousness, at once disembodied (for what eyes do we use to see inside our minds?) and yet the very fount of all subjectivity, formless and yet flexible enough to accommodate all the people we need to be in life, as well as all the fantasies we entertain. I can’t read more than 50 pages of this at a stretch, however, without the sentences starting to blur and collapse in on themselves. Even I have some reading limits.