This is a short, strange and intriguing book. It is the memoir of the life of a strange, fascinating and not completely likeable woman, by her daughter.
By Gay Lee
Both are called Anna – at least the author is, but her mother has 3 names during the course of the book which mark the different stages of her life. These are: Paulina, Nina and Anna. Author Anna sometimes refers to herself in childhood as ‘she’ and sometimes ‘I’ and near the end of the book she is referred to as ‘Marie’!
So sometimes it is hard to know which person is being written about, especially as the first part of the book is not completely chronological and the story gets side-tracked, wandering off the main path for a while and coming back to it, and often much further down the road. It is an interesting idea to do this but sometimes it is not obvious why. For example, very near the start of the book, author Anna, as a child remembers in detail Alice, an elderly neighbour and her possessions and surroundings. Anna speculates about the ‘little old lady’s’ previous life but doesn’t really draw any parallels with that of her mother. It is a nice but isolated and oddly unconnected story within in a story.
So at first I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on and that too felt strange – though for many readers that feeling of being a bit out of control while reading might be very exhilarating.
The book opens with a short quotation from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens and a short passage telling how much this book meant to Anna’s mother. This is an odd start and the explanation about why it is such an important book is only followed up in the closing pages. However the parallels between this story and Anna’s story needs knowledge of the novel to understand and appreciate them because they are not well explained.
I would have liked an introduction by the author, something said about herself and about how she was going to structure and guide the reader through her mother’s life story. Instead this first, introductory chapter contains the story of Alice amid the tales of her mother actually burning her first attempts at creative writing. It also contains a brief tale of author Anna’s own birth and subsequent adoption by her mother Anna – described as a ‘Dark Fairy’ who ‘is the spell-maker who compels us to find out for ourselves what is truly for our own good ….her dark-fairy nature stayed around in disguise to show up at critical moments, to comfort and demand’.
Her mother was born into a onetime aristocratic Catholic family in 1889, near Rome, a child of the sun, loving her Italian upbringing and marrying a Catholic doctor who she adored and who tragically died prematurely. They had no children. ‘Mussolini was on the rise and she could see what kind of a star he was. She was the widow of a Jew…. She was not the wait-and-see type… She had to leave Italy’. It was many years before she went back – and then only for a short while.
The story moves backwards and forwards for a while – sometimes confusingly – between Italy and England where she decided to settle. There the story itself settles down (a little) and mostly focuses on Anna’s heroic attempts to find a good life for her adopted daughter and herself – moving house and place so many times and always working so hard. How difficult their lives must have been! The book moves energetically through lots of encounters and adventures. They include a very low-key (he almost slips into the story unnoticed!) introduction into the story of the husband who Anna didn’t really like (he was ‘beneath’ her and lazy). However her author-daughter has very warm and idiosyncratic memories of him.
The two Annas finally settle in South London but husband, Alfred William Sheldrake, disappears from the story.
The last section of the book includes a chapter about the last part of her life written as if by her mother Anna herself – in a very different and quite disjointed style. It tells of daughter Anna (whom she confusingly calls Marie!) growing into a difficult teenager, her pregnancy and happy-sounding marriage to a lovely Norwegian man. Still in the voice of her mother she briefly moves back home to Italy when her daughter moves to Norway and then she goes to live with them. After conflicts which sound as if they are caused by the old woman becoming paranoid, her mother moves to a convent.
Author Anna in her own voice concludes the sad story of her mother’s death. She bitterly regrets that she was not there with her at the end.
Anna obviously had very complex and ambivalent reasons for writing her mother’s story – and did she even understand them herself? She does not paint a very sympathetic picture of her mother. She writes very generously about her and brings out all the positive aspects of her mother’s nature – her energy, her persistence and bravery, her sense of injustice, her outspokenness and honesty. But she does not hold back about the negative side of these traits – her snobbery, aggression, selfishness, sometimes ruthlessness. And she was always moving on. The author must have felt very disoriented and lonely with all the house moves her mother made – but she doesn’t complain. ‘Dark fairy’ describes her well. But this honest and vivid portrait did not make me warm to her mother and this was a big problem for me in keeping my interest in her story.
Above all Anna emphasises the sacrifices her mother made for her – her adopted daughter – how hard her life was and how much she wanted to make her daughter’s a better one. This seems to have induced in author Anna a feeling of guilt about her relationship with her mother and a need to rid herself of it by writing this book. But I also felt strongly that her mother was very manipulative, her ego drove her sacrifices and she made sure her daughter realised this. She was not always very nice to her.
So this is a memoir to mitigate bereavement and it needed to be written, though the writing style is complicated and sometimes clumsy and difficult to understand. But it is often poetic in quality and beautiful. Remembering the results for Londoners of the Second World War bombing, author Anna describes the ‘holes hollowed out of memory, nerve endings brutally cut over, shrivelled up, leaving synapses to fend for themselves as best they could’. And the book’s last words are haunting: ‘Surfaces melted away, leaving only the tenderness of the years, the years of memory and all the years before’.
Gay Lee is a British nurse, working part time in end-of-life-care. She is semi-retired and spends a lot of her spare time trying to save the British National Health Service from privatisation and destruction. She also does a little freelance writing.