A winner of several major prizes in its native France, Violaine Huisman’s now-anglicised debut has received predictably little coverage here. I picked it up on the strength of that half-eaten apple on its spine – Virago – but what about all those readers who aren’t so brand loyal or who need that thousand-word panegyric from The Guardian to tell them what to read? Such is our attitude to literature in translation.
Keen-eyed readers will note my ambiguous use of the word ‘debut’. A debut what? I have kept it vague because I myself am unsure. The dust jacket calls it ‘a novel’, but a quick Google search reveals that the ‘Mother’ of the title and the family of the narrative align almost exactly with Huisman’s own mother and family – to the extent that our narrator shares a name with our author! And yet, despite its basis in fact, I agree with our copywriter: the book does read like a novel. It jumps back and forth in time; it switches tense and perspective; it has a kind of wild energy that you would never find in ordinary memoir. Making it what, then? Making it a genuine example, I think, of that most misattributed of genres: autofiction.
After a whirlwind account of Maman’s manic-depression, breakdown, hospitalisation, violence, drug-taking, devastating beauty and heart-bursting love for her two daughters, we get, on the final page of Part I (of three), an explanation for why Huisman turned to the wardrobe of fiction to clothe her mother’s story:
Catherine could only be an idea for me, an abstract notion, at best an unknown. As for the woman who had existed before giving birth to me, I had no access to her. To me, Catherine could only ever be a work of fiction […] to give shape to her I had to imagine her, interpret her. I had to become the narrator of her story in order to give her back her humanity.
This in itself, however, is something of a red herring, for, with Part II, the whole novel resets, beginning as you would expect a memoir to begin – “Catherine was born in Paris, on April 1, 1947” – and continuing chronologically from there, this time without the intercession of Violaine’s narratorial ‘I’.
Yet the section is no less authored for that, as can be intuited from its next two sentences: “April Fools’ Day! So things got off to a funny start.” You recognise, here, the extravagant use of the exclamation mark from Part I – where you couldn’t move for the things! – and, if you are as weary of all that as I was, you groan. For I wanted the novel to slow down at this point; I wanted Peter Ackroyd to take over. But no – after just a few pages of reasonably well-behaved biography, we’re off again, back on the express train of manic-depression, breakdown, hospitalisation, drug-taking, etc. It’s exhausting.
Which is not to deny the lived experience Huisman is drawing from, or to downplay the skill with which she fictionalises it. The writing is very vivid, at points, and the translation by Leslie Camhi fluent. But a book needs light and shade, andante and allegro, and for all that The Book of Mother chops and changes and claims to be a book in three parts, it is really a book of one part. It’s all allegro.
The Book of Mother is published by Virago and is available here.