It’s been a messy book week, which is inevitable when I have a lot of research on. I’ve read bits and pieces and odd chapters here and there of lots of things – books on dreaming, works by less mainstream French thinkers, overviews of contemporary gender relations in Oliver James’s brilliant books Affluenza and Britain on the Couch, part of a biography by Karen Osborne of Elizabeth von Arnim, which was very good, and lots of sociological studies on what seems to go by the name of ‘intensive mothering’, the bountiful, selfless outpouring of time and attention to children by one, lone carer that stands in uncomfortable opposition to the jungle of capitalism that dominates modern life. It’s all been very interesting, but I’m still trying to digest the material and its myriad of implications.
Some whole books did get through. I finished the luscious, scrumptious Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and enjoyed every single overripe word of it. It begins with Siddalee Walker falling out spectacularly with her mother after a lifetime’s tense relationship. The cause is a profile interview in The New York Times in which her mother, Vivi Dahling, is described as an alcoholic tap dancing child abuser. Despite the fact that this is ostensibly true – or perhaps because this is in fact true – Vivi is possessed by the kind of rage that spans the continent of America and Sidda is distraught that she could have let slip so much dangerously soiled family linen. However, help is at hand in the form of Vivi’s lifelong girlfriends, the irrepressible Ya-Yas, who work to reestablish harmony by encouraging Vivi to send her daughter an old scrapbook full of memorabilia from their girlhood in humid, flower-bedecked Louisiana. The narrative is full of interpolated stories surrounding these scraps of archival material, drawing out the time when they single-handedly disrupted the Shirley Temple lookalike competition in their home town, or when, aged an impressionable 13, the girls stayed with a rich relative to watch the premiere of Gone With the Wind and were forced to confront the ugly treatment of black slaves in their host’s household, or the time when they were caught skinny-dipping in the town’s water tower and spent the night in jail. The vitality and the delight in naughtiness that inspires and pervades these escapades is such a pleasure to read. This must stand as one of the original girl power stories, showing its magical force stretching back across time. Above all it’s a tribute to the strength and comfort of enduring friendships between women, something that really doesn’t get celebrated enough. For the sisterhood is there for Vivi as the story of her life turns ever darker.
One of the main themes of the novel is the way that motherhood whitewashes a woman’s past. So whilst it may be responsible for much of that mother’s behaviour, children grow up not understanding why they receive the treatment they do. Vivi’s problems lie inevitably with her own upbringing and the tragic events that shaped her life. Vivi’s mother is a bitter woman, fiercely jealous of her daughter’s high spirits and popularity, who ships her off to a reformatory school run by nuns where Vivi almost loses the will to live. Vivi cannot bring herself to believe that her mother hates her, although she can almost feel the force of rage that inhabits every one of her gestures and this sad contradiction helps to damage irrevocably her self-esteem. As it turns out, Buggy is a viciously disappointed woman, and the fact that she is mistress of her own destiny only makes matters worse. Many years ago, jealous of her sister, Buggy stole her boyfriend from her and married him. Alas, Vivi’s father turns out to be a cruel womanizer, betraying his wife many times, treating her with contempt and loathing, and Buggy has sought refuge in the most extreme form of self-denying Catholicism. It’s no wonder that Vivi’s spirited exploits and upfront attractiveness drive her almost insane with envy. The final straw is a diamond ring given to her by her father for her sixteenth birthday. Buggy’s suspicious mind, distorted by years of ill-treatment and self-imposed servitude reads the worst into this gesture and Vivi finds herself dispatched with cruelty to a distant, loveless boarding school. This isn’t the only contributing factor to her incipient alcoholism, but it’s notably on the train headed towards her new school that her brother’s hipflask of whisky is the only comfort she has. In the compulsive heart of the narrative, Vivi’s unfolding story, prompted by Ya-Yarabilia, can never excuse but can certainly mitigate the awful breakdown Vivi suffers when she beats her children senseless and disappears to an asylum for several months. They say that behind every instance of poor mothering lies a woman who was a traumatized child, and Vivi is a fine example of it.
But then, as now, the Ya-Ya sisterhood pull Vivi through and provide the love and support her family never could. Sidda and Vivi are reconciled in a gloriously syrupy happy ending that escapes blatant sentimentality (just) by the strength of the writing. I think Vivi is a fantastic example of the yummy mummy/slummy mummy split, a woman who went on a three day fugue when the responsibility of caring alone for four young children got too much for her, wearing nothing but a cream cashmere coat. Now there’s style for you.
I also read a novel that was a bestseller a few years ago now, Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does it, the ultimate having-it-all story of a woman torn between the testosterone-fuelled world of fund management and the domestic demands of two young children. Needless to say she has a pretty terrible time trying to be perfect at both all-consuming careers, and the resolution to this novel (which I won’t give away) was an intriguing compromise. I have to confess that I did not read this particularly closely, which was a shame in some ways as it was probably the best written of the chick-lit novels I’ve been reading of late. But something about the sheer madness of these women’s lives was starting to make me feel claustrophobic and a bit frenzied myself. When the story opens, our heroine, Kate, is distressing supermarket-bought mince pies with a rolling pin at 1.30 in the morning on the pretext that home baked cakes are de rigueur at her daughter’s school carol concert. Life as she knows it, apparently, will end if she turns up bearing a box from Sainsbury’s in her hands. The extent of this insanity got to me and I really began to wonder whether it was possible that women could feel this way, could be subject to such overwhelming internal pressure to match up to impossible standards. I hoped not, and then again, I wouldn’t personally put a limit on what that harsh inner critic inside a woman’s mind is capable of doing. Instead I began to get very interested in the issue of self-esteem, as it’s lack was the common factor linking all of the heroines in the baby-sick-lit books I’ve been reading. One of the major issues facing women today who become mothers is the sharp drop in self-esteem that comes from giving up paid work (the only criteria for measuring individual value in our rampantly capitalist world), and suffering a drop in perceived attractiveness due to the after effects of giving birth and months of sleep deprivation. No matter how much women pour themselves into mothering, and no matter how much our culture demands good mothering from them, there is no perceived worth attributed to staying home with babies and toddlers. Rather than seeing the nurture and care of children as something that repays them for their efforts, women tend to think they will feel better about themselves if they are earning a bit of money and enjoying the relative ‘freedom’ of the office. That’s a direct result of our image-obsessed, money-driven society. And yet, on the other hand, Adrienne Rich, back in the years when feminism was a force for great good, spoke movingly and accurately of the way that women had never been allowed to turn their egos outwards onto the world, and had been obliged to clip their own wings, constrain their minds and desires, and settle for the limited horizons of domesticity. We can’t go back there, either. The only real solution to this particular dilemma would be for society to recognize the true value of mothering and to pay carers for the years they put into raising their children. Think that’s about to happen? Me neither.
The last book I read was Sarah Stovell’s debut novel Mothernight. The gorgeous cover of this, all lapis lazuli blue against black and gold, was as tempting as the blurb on the back. It’s the story of troubled, brilliant Leila, who lost her mother in a car crash when she was five and who lost her baby half-brother in suspicious circumstances shortly after his birth. What was initially a strained relationship with her stepmother, Katherine, becomes completely untenable as Katherine is convinced that Leila was responsible for his death. However, there is also the neighbour’s daughter, Rosie, to be considered. Rosie is a manipulative and malevolent character, the daughter of an addict and a hooker who has now been adopted by a nice, middle-class family but whose character bears the scars. ‘She had the ancient Christian compulsion to walk in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain,’ Leila tells us, ‘It was only afterwards that she liked to increase it for them.’ Rosie was also there the night the baby died and her role is uncertain. When the narrative opens, the death is many years in the past but the shadow it casts is long. Leila has been sent away to boarding school and not allowed home. But there she meets Olivia and the two girls begin a passionate affair. The consequence of this is that Olivia accompanies Leila home for the long summer holidays after they have left school but before they begin university. It is the first time Leila has come home since she was sent away but tensions still run high with Katherine full of rage and her father strung impossibly across his split loyalties. I can’t tell you any more than this without giving the plot away, but I read RosieB’s fantastic review and agreed wholeheartedly that this was a modern day Greek tragedy. It’s written with clarity and assurance and has a tense thriller-ish edge when it first opens that blurs later on in the light of the complex moral dilemma that Stovell manages to create. She is a writer fascinated by the limit points of moral experience – what do the outer reaches of guilt and innocence look like? What happens to people whose lives have been destroyed through no fault of their own? To what extent do the scars of trauma mitigate the subsequent crimes and mistakes of judgments that we make? I found this a gripping and intense read and will certainly look out for future novels by this author.
Phew! That’s a lot of book reviewing. If I were sensible I would split this up and post it piecemeal across the week, wouldn’t I? Alas, I am not sensible, and having written it all, you might as well have it all. But I’ll consider that option for next week.