Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life – Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain has been in print for more than 40 years. Her novels and short stories have earned her the Orange Prize, the Dylan Thomas Award, the Whitbread Novel of the Year award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, amongst others. It’s always hugely exciting when talented writers turn their pens on themselves, so I was looking forward to this one.

Rosie covers the period of Tremain’s life from birth (in 1943) to the early 1960s. She grew up in post-war London where, according to the inside cover blurb, ‘food and affection were fiercely rationed’. With a distant father, frustrated playwright Keith Thomson, and a mother, Jane, seemingly incapable of love, Tremain lived for the family’s trips to Hampshire, where they spent summers at her grandparents farm deep in the countryside. However, aged 10, everything changed when Keith left them to start a new family with a much younger woman he’d fallen in love with while working on a play in York.

Not long after Keith’s departure, Jane began an affair with his cousin, Ivo Thomson, who she eventually married. Tremain and her older sister Jo found themselves dispatched to boarding school in Hertfordshire, where Rosie had to start over, searching for the friendship and love that she had never been able to take for granted.

Although I’ve read a number of her books, I didn’t know anything at all about Tremain’s personal life – it came as a surprise to find she’d had a more unusual upbringing than most. The most shocking thing is the lack of love she experiences. Her mother makes it disarmingly plain that she doesn’t love her daughters, but it’s not expressed as indifference. There are occasions when it seems more like maliciousness or jealousy. Tremain explores the idea of Jane’s jealous feelings towards her daughters; the idea that she sees them as unbearably privileged compared to her own experience as the surviving, unloved daughter of parents in perpetual mourning for the beloved sons they lost (one aged 16 to a burst appendix, and the other killed at Furstenau in 1945 in the last month of the war). We can only imagine Jane’s lonely, guilt-ridden childhood. Tremain attempts a degree of balance in the way she acknowledges it, but it can’t quite disguise the fact that she still feels a lot of hurt about the way she was treated – little barbs litter the text.

There are interesting meditations on the idea of love as a learned behaviour. Jane didn’t receive love so she was singularly incapable of bestowing it. Tremain considers her true role model to be her live-in nanny, Vera, with her from birth to the time she was sent away to boarding school. Even after that Vera was a feature in her life – it was to Vera’s home she was sent when illness forced her home from school for a few weeks. She regarded Vera as her angel, the one who saved her by loving her.

Tremain’s memoir is, of course, also about the origins of a writer. I loved the occasional footnote tying Rosie’s real-life experiences to incidents in her later novels. She also describes in detail an event, aged 13 or 14, when she had an epiphany on a beautiful summer evening while walking home across a hayfield. Simultaneously struck by the beauty of the moment and a sense of utter desolation at its fleeting nature, she casts around for a way to preserve it, so it can be ‘captured and locked way, not just in capricious, gradually fading memory, but in some more concrete form’. And so the adolescent Tremain decides that writing is her calling. She wouldn’t just write about her memories, so much ‘sentimental nostalgia’; instead her experiences would be ‘transfigured by becoming fiction… experienced afresh.’ She would ‘assert her divinity over it’. Writing is definitely one of those professions that seems more calling than ‘job’ and you always imagine a moment like this when you romanticise the unleashing of the writer within. It was particularly satisfying to read about Tremain’s ‘lightbulb’.

Throughout the rest of her journey to adulthood we see that resolve tested, particularly when she’s taken out of boarding school, having finally established herself there, and sent to finishing school in Switzerland, where the emphasis is all on how many words per minute you can type and how to marry well.

Interestingly Tremain seems furthest of all from her writing dreams at the end of the book, on the cusp of leaving ‘Mon Fertile’ (yes, really truly), her finishing school. I wonder if she’s planning to write more, covering the long period between school and the moment when she became a published author. It feels like a cliffhanger, but then it also feels like Tremain wrote this book in part to exorcise ‘Rosie’ (she definitely separates herself into Rosie – powerless child – and Rose) and partly to work through her complex feelings towards her mother.

Whatever her reasons for writing, I found it a fascinating insight and will continue to lap up books in which writers write about being writers.

Educated – Tara Westover

Back in April, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at the Stratford Literary Festival in which Tara Westover discussed Educated, her book about growing up in Idaho in a Mormon survivalist family. The book was still on my library reservations list so I was approaching things somewhat blind, but I knew I’d read it eventually. Finally, in July, I was able to link the speaker who so impressed me with the words that she wrote.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children. Her father – who likely suffered with bipolar disorder, although was never formally diagnosed – was opposed to public education and pretty much every other form of state-sanctioned enterprise. Her mother initially practised as an unlicensed midwife, before establishing herself as a renowned healer and herbalist. As a child, Westover spent her time helping her mother prepare her essential oil and herb blends, laying in supplies for the ‘end of days’, or working up on the mountain behind their home in the junkyard run by her father. The latter work was physical and dangerous, and both Tara and her siblings sustained serious injuries on the site.

The first time Westover attended a school she was seventeen. Prior to that, although her parents claimed to be home-schoolers, she’d had little to no formal education. In one of her first lectures at Brigham Young University, Westover shocked her professor and classmates alike by asking what the Holocaust was. No one genuinely believed she didn’t know and it was less embarrassing for her to admit it was a joke in poor taste than to confess the truth about her lack of education.

Once begun, Westover’s learning journey accelerated, taking her from BYU to Cambridge, then to a visiting fellowship at Harvard, before she achieved her PhD at Cambridge in 2014.

All of which is a staggering achievement given the obstacles she had to navigate to get there.

It’s hard to read Westover’s book.  It’s hard to stomach her parents’ neglect and the abuse she suffered repeatedly at the hands of one of her brothers. It’s hard to imagine the kind of parenting that wouldn’t insist a child wore a seatbelt in a car being driven at speed through a snowstorm, wouldn’t rush them immediately to hospital when they sustained a terrible head injury or a burn that stripped most of the skin off their leg. I’d imagine the hardest task for Westover in writing her book was trying to help readers understand why she didn’t leave sooner, or seek help, or condemn her family more publicly: it’s too easy to judge a situation when you aren’t living all the emotions it entails.

One of the things that struck me while reading is that it takes a special kind of wisdom to be insightful about your own family. While they’re often people you know very well, emotion tends to cloud judgement. I thought Westover had an incredible ability to understand her family, and particularly her parents, despite the pain they caused her. I loved this quote about her father, ‘Gene’, and the land that shaped him:

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation… It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

While the emotions in the book are undoubtedly complex, there is a lot of love and respect in the way that Westover writes about her family and the place in which she grew up. Which makes sense given that her family was both the source of great betrayal and also the strength and support she needed in order to leave. Westover explores the notion of memory in her writing and repeatedly acknowledges, when describing significant incidents, that there is often more than one version of events. The extent to which she struggles with the idea that her own recollection may be faulty (when so many of us assume it’s correct by default) is really interesting and sheds light on why she chose her particular field of study:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement – since realising that what a person knows about the past… will always be limited, to what they are told by others. […] Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. […] maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong, and the great historians… could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in.”

It’s public knowledge that Westover is now estranged from much of her family and that some of them have disputed, through lawyers, many details of her book. Westover herself reminded me that I was reading one of many versions of events and my overall impression was that she was fair and measured in her approach. It feels like her training as a historian shines through – she is adept at separating emotional response from fact, and at distinguishing fact from recollection. Given how much I felt myself judging people throughout, she is remarkably careful not to judge anyone too harshly for their actions.

When speaking in Stratford, she made a really interesting point about the timing of the book, describing how she wanted to write it while she was still in conflict about the decisions she made. Her view was that many books about estrangement were written some years after the fact, when reflection and time had changed the emotions involved. She also explained in part what caused her to write the book. Namely that stories tell us how we should feel about things/experiences and that her experience didn’t come with a story that allowed her to understand and process what happened to her. So she wrote it. Despite being so personal, she was quite happy for people to interpret the story and her decisions in whatever way they needed to depending on their own circumstances.

Westover’s education is the most fascinating of journeys. Some of it might be passive, sitting at home listening to her father expound at length on his latest obsessions, and some of it is dynamic as she struggles to fill cavernous gaps with knowledge that the rest of the world seem to take for granted. All of it represents an empowering attempt to put herself and her experiences in a context that she can understand and that will allow her to exist and to move forward.

Education for Westover is not always an unequivocally ‘good thing’: it brings with it complications and pain that make it far from the easy choice. But there’s a hunger in the way Westover acquires knowledge that feels deeply authentic. It’s like getting an insight into the way a child learns because, this time, the child in question has the ability to communicate their experience in a masterful, cognisant way. Westover learns in order to live, to experience, to understand, to grow and to break free. Not every student can be a Westover (and to be honest, nor would they wish to be), but her book reminds us of many of the underpinning tenets of education that we must be careful not to lose sight of.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the lives of writers, this little oldie is a gem. John Quinn, author and former broadcaster for Irish radio station RTÉ, ran a series of radio programmes in 1985, each featuring an interview with a female writer whose childhood had been spent in Ireland.

Following the broadcasting, he collected the interviews into an edited collection of essays for this book, some featuring extracts from the writers’ works.

There are entries from well-known writers such as Maeve Binchy, Molly Keane and Edna O’Brien, as well as Clare Boylan, travel writer Dervla Murphy and gifted short story writer Mary Lavin, amongst others.

It’s such a lovely way to get an insight into the formative experiences and influences of people who went on to write. Childhood is also a fascinating subject to explore and, naturally, these women are excellent storytellers, with a great eye for the revealing detail. While there’s considerable diversity of experience, it was so interesting to see how similar themes recurred between the essays, such as a love for books and reading, the escapism of literature, the solitary nature of the writer, and the way in which childhood memories are often revisited over and over in adult works.

Out of print now, it’s not impossible to pick up a copy if you were interested enough to track it down. I picked mine up for about £1.50 via a secondhand bookseller.

Overdosing on children’s books – some current favourites

I’ve mentioned before that having a baby opened a door into a whole new world of books. Now, in addition to having my own teetering TBR lists, I have lists geared at every stage of my daughter’s life from pop-ups to pre-teen. So I thought it might be nice to share the occasional miscellany of child-friendly reading on the blog. After all, every committed reader I’ve ever met can reel off a list of ‘the books that began it all’ and I’d love your hints and tips on what I have yet to discover.

For starters, here are the books that we (translation: me – she’s largely still indifferent to whatever book we’re reading at bedtime and so I blatantly plump for my favourites over and over again…) are currently enjoying.

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Jon Klassen – I Want My Hat Back

I so wish I could convey in words how the bear sounds in this book. And that funny little possum-like creature who’s never seen a hat. This book is ALL about the voices.

Oliver Jeffers 

Anything by OJ. But particularly Stuck for it’s joyful insanity. And definitely not The Heart in the Bottle because I was ill-prepared for how different this is to Stuck and it really doesn’t make for a smooth bedtime to find yourself suddenly choking back tears and thinking inappropriate ‘Sunrise, Sunset‘ thoughts.

John Vernon Lord – The Giant Jam Sandwich

More hilarious idiocy, only this time with rhymes. And how else would you get rid of four million wasps? This one is a favourite from my own childhood and comes with faint memories of having put it on as a play at my primary school.

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Emma Dodd – Me

This is undoubtedly sentimental but it’s so so lovely and the illustrations are beautiful. The ending always makes me feel a little glow and hug a little tighter.

The Ahlbergs – Peepo

No children’s book collection is complete without a few Ahlberg’s and this one is currently making us smile. As much for the lovely details that set it firmly in an earlier time, like daddy carrying in the bucket of coal.

Helen Stephens – How to Hide a Lion

Essential know-how for a small person. Obviously.

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Steve Antony – Please Mr Panda

I am a complete sucker for books that lend themselves to repetition in various funny voices. Plus this book involves both pandas and doughnuts. Double win.

David McKee – Not Now Bernard

Another proper classic. I love how dark this is once you’ve stopped laughing.

Tatyana Feeney – Little Owl’s Orange Scarf / Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket

Somehow, in very few words, Feeney captures the innocence of children and how things appear through their eyes. Clever, funny and with the loveliest illustrations.

What other children’s books should I (we) be reading??