It’s a long time since I have read a happy Mothers and Daughters book. Honestly, decades. How can this be? Most of the mothers I know have great relationships with their daughters. Yet current fiction does not support this view, and I have the books to prove it:
Let’s start with Vivian Gornick’s biographical account of life with her mother – Fierce Attachments. Well, the title says it all really. Two lippy women living in the Bronx without the balancing household presence of any y chromosomes. The daughter: sharp-tongued and sexually adventurous, the mother: conservative and grieving the loss of her husband. Their best moments come when they walk the streets of their beloved New York.
Moving right on to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, where things become that bit more curdled. Take one controlling, difficult-to-please mother, add a “finding herself” daughter and a dodgy medical practice. Transport them all to foreign soil, leave to simmer in the heat, stir occasionally – then prepare to dodge the fallout. Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for this very readable novel.
My Name is Lucy Barton also has ill health as a trigger point for a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. It’s a small novel, set almost entirely in a New York hospital room, in which Lucy and her mother attempt to nut out their history. This book made me the most sad, because the real culprit in their story was poverty and its effect on families. It also makes one aware that sometimes, even when great efforts are being made, things do not always work out. In fact Elizabeth Strout is something of a specialist on the theme of strained mothers and daughters. Her highly acclaimed first novel Amy and Isabelle also tackles this topic.
A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member
said George Bernard Shaw. This may well be true, but I won’t know for sure until I have reacquainted myself with some good strong Happy Families books. Does such a thing even exist?
Every year at around this time, the Man Booker Prize Long List is published. Thirteen new fiction books, each and every one selected to push you to your limits as a reader. All with engaging titles and eye-catching covers that scream out Pick Me! Read Me!
The long list is for the real die-hards, here’s what I fancy this year:
- The Many – Wyl Menmuir’s novel is my top choice because it is by a first time author who had just completed a creative writing course when he wrote the book, and it was written from a campervan on the Cornish coast. It is seriously the underdog entry.
- Hot Milk – Deborah Levy. I cannot wait to read this. It explores the cross over between a daughter’s over-developed sense of responsibility towards her mother, and her need to take risks and live her own life. And I love the cover.
- Serious Sweet – A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet sounds like just my kind of book: two characters (with all the first world flaws we know and love) find one another in London. He’s a ‘bankrupt accountant’, she’s ‘shakily sober’. Together they do their best in a world intent on doing its worst.
- The Schooldays of Jesus – J.M. Coetzee. A South African-born writer who has already won the Booker prize twice. He’s the heavyweight of the list. This novel (a sequel to The Childhood of Jesus) is about growing up, parenting and life choices. It’s allegorical writing, so don’t read too much into the cover – chances are that’s not Jesus learning to pirouette at a dance school.
As I bash out this blog on the keyboard, I swear I can feel the sinking of the collective heart of all my book club ladies over the years. Long have they loathed my Man Booker choices. When pushed they will give me the ‘too’ list: Too weird, too literary, too boring, too obscure, too depressing. “Nonsense” I retaliate, “Man Up”!
The long list has a short life span. Soon it will be culled from this baker’s dozen, to the six of the short list and finally down to the eventual winner. And at least a couple of these lovelies are sure to make it into a book group near you!
It’s more exciting than rugby. No really, I’m not kidding, it is!