Secrets and Crimes

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.


22 thoughts on “Secrets and Crimes

  1. I can’t imagine life without reading, but The Unnameable sounds so disturbing, not just bizarre, but seriously scary for me at any rate. I can’t imagine the dreams I would have if I read it. I don’t think it’s for me. The motherhood novels sound dark as well, full of angry unhappiness. Thank goodness for The Savage Garden, “an intelligent comfort read” it sounds much more to my liking – and it’s sitting on the tbr bookshelves as I write – where it has been for a few months. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.

  2. I read the Ya-Yas so long ago that I can’t remember details, but I do remember that novels about southern women cropped up like mushrooms afterwards.

    I had a long discussion with my husband yesterday about motherhood. We’d seen an extremely stressed woman screaming, “What the fuck did you do to her?! What the fuck did you doooooooooo?” at her toddler. The “her” in question was a newborn baby who was screaming. The toddler was sobbing. We talked about the toxic aspects of our culture, which isolates women with young children at a time when even the most stable and serene of us desperately need support. To even feel a need for support makes one feel like a bad mother. So we isolate women with children who are traumatized by their mothers’ anger, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress, guilt, frustration and inability to cope. These children in turn become adults too damaged to effect much change to make their society healthier. It just breaks my heart. As for this specific incident, I don’t know what it’s like there, but here, to go up to that woman and ask in a kind voice if she could use some help, maybe for us to take her toddler into the shop while she calmed her baby would most likely be met with suspicion. She’d assume we were pedophiles after her toddler or that we were really taking the toddler to the police or child protective services. I briefly considered offering help anyway, hoping she’d shout at me instead of the child, but decided that would only ultimately cause more stress, which would be taken out on the toddler later. And it seemed that this shouting was what was making the newborn scream, so giving the mother someone else to shout at didn’t seem practical after all. In other words, I felt there was nothing I could do, not even with the gentlest, least judgmental, most supportive intentions.

    What really worries me is that someone who screams anything with the word fuck in it at a tiny child in public probably does much worse in private. I hope I’m wrong.

  3. Isn’t Divine Secrets wonderful? I loved that book – it’s one using as inspiration in a way for my own novel…not in content but in the way Sidda’s character acts as vehicle for the story of these other women. Truly a lovely novel. You can see why I sometimes yearn to have been born in the American south!

  4. You certainly do have eclectic taste, Litlove! No book has ever depended more on nothing (but the genius of pure sentences) to keeps its readers reading than “The Unnameable,” but two I can think of come close. Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading” begins with what for a few pages is a confused but manageable narration, then quickly advances or retreats to near incomprehensibility. Witold Gombrowicz’s “Pornographia” manages to thread a narrative through what must be some of most frustrating ruminations ever put on paper. I don’t know if you’re taking nominations, but these would qualify as strong contenders.

  5. Booksplease – I’m so glad you have the Mills – it is a very entertaining and enjoyable novel and I’m sure you’ll like it. I feel a bit bad for misrepresenting the other novels as most readers would see Williams’s caricatures as the humorous satire she intends them to be. It’s only the effect of thinking too much about these books that has me looking so deeply into their shadows! And Beckett is generally funny too, unexpectedly so. But he is also, undeniably, weird! Dew – what a distressing experience for all concerned. You’re so right that isolation is the key and that there is not enough practical help for women with young children, particularly when they simply find the experience of motherhood disorienting and frightening. That mother had obviously lost it completely (which gives me hope that she was at the top of her range, as it were, and no different really to how she would be at home) and I agree it would have been impossible as a stranger to help her. She would need someone she knew to step in. It’s so sad, isn’t it, to witness something like that and not be able to do anything about it. You can only hope she went home and realised, at some point, at some level, how she had behaved. You have to hope that for all people who are lost to themselves in a bubble of despair. Courtney – it is a truly wonderful book and you’ve opened my eyes to its organisation by what you said. I hadn’t thought of Sidda in that way but you’re quite right. I’m longing for the deep south now, and I have no idea what it’s like, even!

  6. David – I go where the research takes me! Although I’d visit the wild world of Beckett of my own accord; I always thought Molloy an extraordinary novel. I have to confess at this point that I have never read any Nabokov (not even Lolita) nor any Gombrowicz and I’m extremely impressed that you should be able to offer them as potential prize winners. I’ll have to check them out now you’ve awakened my curiosity.

  7. Dear, dear, it’s an immensely sad world you seem to be investigating at the moment. Everyone seems to be on the run from life one way or another. What it all seems to link to is the idea of is indulgence in extremes. We can’t seem to strike a balance as humans. While the escape from the deep repressions of the past, especially for women, is a good thing, the flip side is to drive ourselves into the prisons of the overdemonstrative instead. We always seem to be on the edges of the clock case being battered by the pendulum, incapable of the equilibrium we seem to desire. The desire for this seems the biggest demand we make on the media, which in turn they happily refuel for us, especially with the extreme “reality” shows and general sensationalism they portray. The Beckett is another extreme it seems. I only know Godot, and I can see a connection of sorts to that play. He strips down man to basics and then shows us ourselves filling in the time, waiting for some imagined state when all will be well, by exploiting each other in various power plays, which never end. It’s a pretty gloomy take on human behaviour, yummy, slummy and crazy mummies included. To what extent do you think the mother’s responsibility (outsourcing herself, an interesting idea and term for the experience), is special to her? Do you think men and the extended family have less of this or none at all? I certainly worry about the children, but maybe you see a different order or type of concern.

  8. I remember you not liking her style too much but Rachel Cusk seems like an author that might fit your research project to a T. Both her books Arlington Park and The LUcky Ones are really an extended exploration of these very themes – how does motherhood change us etc etc etc. I’d be very interested in reading your thoughts on her with in terms of this perspective.

  9. Aha, The Savage Garden is on special offer in the bookshop underneath my office I’m on my way down. Sounds like just what I need to relax with in the evening as work ramps back up to full stress mode in the week before term starts. (Yes, I work above a bookshop – a fate both happy and disastrous for a book addict).

  10. I have the Savage Garden, too, and your description of an intelligent comfort read makes me want to pick it up right away! And now I have to go look at the author photo on the back (I have the UK edition)….Your thoughts on the Polly Williams book are interesting. It does sound really sort of dark. The media has a wonderful way of making women feel inadequate (well at least I do when I look at magazines in the check out aisle in the supermarket), but I never thought of what it might be like for a mother/pregnant woman. The glossies are just as filled with actresses and models who’ve just had babies and have these perfect lives and have gotten back their perfect bodies in no time at all after giving birth. Why would that depress me? And I love to hear about all the books you’ve been reading during the week!

  11. I loved the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Very enjoyable reading. The Beckett intrigues me by being so strange sounding. As for the yummy mummies, how depressing. Makes me glad I never had children, though that too comes with its own landmines.

  12. What great reviews! That Yummy Mummy book sounds really interesting, and your insights into mommyhood and why it can be so miserable are right on the money.

    Now I must surf the net for a picture of Mark Mills (:

  13. I’m gearing up to teach some Beckett in a couple weeks, a play of his — I do like his plays, but I’ve never tried the prose. I really should, and I know you’ve recommended it to me before. One day I’ll pull down my copy of Molloy from the shelves! I’m glad to hear that Beckett’s novels keep one’s attention; I get a bit worried about being bored.

  14. I love your description of “an intelligent comfort read,” and love even more your observation that they are very rare. All this about mothers is just more proof for me that, despite being the most natural thing in the world, motherhood is very, very, very hard and should not be entered into lightly. I think we suffer terribly, too, from having moved away from the notion that children should — no, really, NEED — to be raised by many, many adults rather than by one mother and one father. This new, nuclear-family model puts more pressure than ever on the mother.

  15. Love your post, especially the thoughtfulness you bring to the books you read. Being a mother of 3 children, I am not sure which group I would fall into – I’m NOT a Yummy, since I am not thin (and hence desirable in today’s world), but I cannot stay at home either – life with just the kids would drive me crazy. So there is a third way that the book doesn’t mention, because it’s the way that involves the husband – we both look after the children. Though, as Emily in the comments points out quite rightly, that is hardly enough to look after the kids. Extended family and friends is really needed.
    And I love how you say that reading is like breathing for you. I never thought about why I read either (though I read Care’s post and liked it, I left a long comment!), I just do it. Maybe they should do a Nike commercial for book reading 🙂

  16. Hello! I am visiting blogs today that my good friend has recommended. How inspiring your voracious reading habits are! and also the seeming ease with which you write about it all. I also read the Ya-Ya book (which I loved) and saw the movie (which was awful); I was warned not to pick up the sequels or prequels and see that advice repeated here, so I will certainly abide by it. I think Vivi is one of my favorite contemporary characters: tough, enigmatic, tortured but zesty, funny, indomitable. I hope you enjoy the finish.

  17. Bookboxed – I worry that I’m misrepresenting it! Really, most of these books are supposed to be comedies; but then tragedy is only comedy’s other face, I suppose and so inevitably one finds it lurking underneath. I think excess is a natural part of contemporary society because excess is its dominant note – lots of consumer spending, lots of rushing around the globe, the most important job you can have, perfect, intense mothering. Capitalism is at the root of this, but it’s so ingrained in our ideology now that we barely see it. As for mothers having a different experience, I think they do. There is something about a baby being part of your body, extended into its first few months if you breastfeed, that marks you, I think. And beyond that, mothers are the first port of call for responsibility and blame, in equal measure, in our culture. Fathers are much more rarely called to account. You always ask me questions that really stretch me, thank you!

    Verbivore – that’s a very good suggestion. I believe Cusk also wrote a book about her experience of motherhood that I should read. It would be good to give her a second try in any case.

    Jean – a bookshop just downstairs?? Oh. My. Goodness. How do you manage not to lose half your salary on the way home? I’d love to know what you think of the book if you get a chance to read it.

    Danielle – the media, which is mad generally, is stark staring bonkers when it comes to mothers. I saw a headline just the other day about some celebrity who was reported to have announced that she wanted to adopt another third world baby ‘on her next day off’. What to make of such craziness? I think you would love the Mark Mills, though.

    Ann – wise words indeed! I shall be taking that advice, thank you.

    Stefanie – The Ya-Yas were great and I loved them. Beckett is intriguing – I would love to know what you make of him. And motherhood, unless you have two children, one boy, one girl, seems to make a woman the target of general criticism. You can’t win any which way!

    Chartroose – thank you so much! I’m delighted if you think I’m heading in the right direction – I’m just thinking out loud at the moment and hoping for the best. Hope you found Mark Mills okay 😉

    Dorothy – I was looking around on the internet and found the entertaining comment that Beckett’s novel The Unnameable was nicknamed by students The Unreadable! It’s true it is complicated and difficult, but Molloy was much easier to read (relatively). The plays are a very good place for anyone to start, though and I wish I could attend your class!

    Emily – I think you are really onto something there with the decline of the extended family. Everything I come across talks about the way that one mother taking care of her children means that all power is placed in the mother, all responsibility and all blame. It’s difficult for anyone to be good enough all the time, especially on very little sleep. The extended family diluted any quirks and foibles in the caregivers and broadened a child’s developmental world.

    Susan – thank you so much! I think you are quite right and that the best way forward for modern parenting is the wholehearted involvement of both the mother and the father. Everyone benefits. It’s been noticeable in the books I’ve been reading that the fathers leave everything to their wives with pretty dire consequences! I loved your comment about the Nike commercial – it made me laugh out loud!

    TJ – hello and thank you for visiting! I loved every minute of the Ya-Yas and will certainly steer clear of all other versions. You’re right about Vivi – what a complex and intriguing and lovable figure she is. The way her story is developed is masterfully done. And thank you for your kind words. I love blogging and usually do more of it than I’ve been able to of late. Once the work backlog clears, I’ll be back.

  18. So I duly took The Savage Garden as my bed-time and bus-ride read for the first few days of this week. It IS an ‘intelligent comfort read’ and I did enjoy it. But oh what a mixed bag! Mark Mills is a terrific spinner of stories, I think – the complex plot, full of twists and flashbacks, comes together effortlessly. He also effectively establishes place, space and atmosphere – I felt as though I’d been there and could take you by the hand on a tour of this imagined Italian country house domain. But there’s no sense at all of it being set in the 1950s – I was seeing modern Italians in modern Tuscany. And, much more seriously, up close the writing had no texture at all – it’s bland in the extreme. This man is no ‘wordsmith’ (an expression beloved of an older writer friend which often annoys me, but is accurate and evocative); he seems to have the problem I have found as a beginner trying to write fiction – it is difficult to paint a thick layer of detail without being boring and I felt he didn’t manage it at all!

  19. Jean – I’m so sorry it didn’t come up to scratch for you, and I do hope you felt in the end that it was worth reading it. I do understand what you mean about the lack of 50s atmosphere.

  20. Oh, as I said, I did enjoy it and am glad I read it! And it was actually quite fascinating realising what it was that I found lacking, whilst at the same time finding other aspects of the book quite powerful.

  21. A post like this makes me regret not knowing you in person. I think you are right about the two extremes of being a mother. And in the middle, the rest of us muddle through. I am brewing a post on this, because I think being a mother never, never has been easy. Women undergo a fundamental change that we cannot even understand after it has happened. Fathers nowadays try to approximate it, but they never truly go through it, and I am not sure why. I would call it biological, but I think that adoptive mothers go through the same kind of change.

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