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.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death – Maggie O’Farrell

I mentioned a little while back that I’d read I Am, I Am, I Am. I’m very glad I did, but ooof. It’s a bit of a sucker punch. If you don’t like dwelling on your own mortality – or anyone else’s for that matter – you might want to avoid it. Ironically I didn’t read O’Farrell straight after James Agee as my last review would suggest. That might just have pushed me over the edge. But if you’re up for a bit of shadowy self-reflection, then I’d heartily recommend O’Farrell’s book. It’s an excellent read and will push you into considering some perspectives that, while uncomfortable, have the potential to be life-affirming. [I Am, I Am, I Am actually appears in Goodreads highest rated non-fiction of the year to date, which I discovered via Doing Dewey’s fab Nonfiction Friday posts.]

The book is a memoir of sorts, based on 17 episodes from O’Farrell’s life during which she came close to death, from near drowning to a robbery at knife point, dysentery to haemorrhage. Some events were fleeting and seemingly based on pure luck, others were more harrowing and connected to her own health. Some of the events are just terrifying and one can only imagine how long they may have taken to get over, if she ever did. The stories aren’t told in chronological order, jumping from adulthood to childhood and back again to create an impression of a life. And as they build you can’t help but get a bit overwhelmed at just how much can happen to one person. It’s an interesting lesson in perspective – is O’Farrell the unluckiest person in the world or the luckiest?

On the surface, O’Farrell’s book paints a portrait of a life almost entirely defined by fear and tension. It’s powerful but did make me occasionally long for something light, restful or inconsequential. It also made me wonder what impression(s) I could create of my own life if I chose to emphasise certain moments above others.

But in between the terror there are glimpses of the counter-balance – the love, joy and inspiration that ideally make up a full life. I ended up thinking a lot about O’Farrell’s intention because it was clearly something very deliberate. This is not at all a conventional memoir, instead it’s a series of careful choices, linked in a considered and structured way. Most lives are random – it’s only in retrospect that one can impose structure and meaning. So O’Farrell’s choices are inevitably seeking to impose meaning. One could argue the book isn’t about death at all but our constant proximity to it. It’s possible we’ve all experienced moments where death was closer, whether we realised it or not. After the first few brushes, O’Farrell’s approach gives the impression that death is a constant in life and the only variable is how close it is to us at any one time. Accepting death as an inevitability in a roundabout way downgrades its importance, pushes it to the background in favour of the things you do have a degree of control over. While we all have to live with the knowledge that death is but a hair’s-breadth away, some people do seem to sail a little closer to the wind. More so than most, O’Farrell’s life has been lived in the shadow of death. But I don’t think that’s her take-home message. I think that her focus pushes you to consider hard questions in order to address your priorities, and creates a longing for balance, an appreciation for the life that you have now.

I read a really interesting review in The Guardian, which I’ll quote here because it made a great observation that I hadn’t considered. Apparently the idea for the book came to O’Farrell while caring for her daughter who:

“…has a severe immune disorder that has, as detailed here, repeatedly required life-saving treatment. On average her child suffers between 12 and 15 allergic reactions a year. If she eats something with a trace of nuts, or sits where someone might have consumed them, or near someone who might have eaten them, she might go into anaphylactic shock. Consequently, O’Farrell’s life “involves a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors. The nurses in our local A and E department greet [my daughter] by name. Her consultant allergist has told me several times that we should never take her outside the range of a good hospital.” This book is, then, O’Farrell’s way of letting her child know that, in facing down death on a regular basis, she is not alone. She is showing her that life is still possible.”

Structurally, I also think O’Farrell does something very clever that speaks to her own identify. The reason why she orders events in the way that she does becomes suddenly clear towards the end of the book. There’s a bit of a spoiler coming up. It’s not like it ruins the ending or anything but I found the late reveal and the retrospective impact it had on my impression of earlier events so impactful and illuminating that I think it’s better not to know it before reading. So…spoiler coming… [go make tea if you don’t want to know].

At the age of eight, O’Farrell contracted encephalitis (a severe inflammation of the brain). She was hospitalised for months and it was not clear whether she would live and, when she defied the odds and did, whether she would walk again or recover her fine motor skills. The impact on her life – both mentally and physically – was profound. Her left arm was permanently weakened, and the illness left her with lasting problems with her balance, vision and perception, as well as, in her own words, ‘a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk’. Long-term effects of cerebellar damage include ‘impulsiveness… deregulated responses to fear…’. Suddenly so much of what happened to O’Farrell and the decisions she made fell into place and made sense of her previously, at times, frustrating attitude to risk and failure to learn from experience. I could see why she left it till much later in the book to gather up the threads. It immediately becomes harder to judge and easier to explain. Perhaps that’s the journey a lot of people in her life have gone on in order to get to know her?

[SPOILER OVER]

In a final note, I loved the source for the title. It’s taken from a beautifully succinct quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and says everything in just a few words, illuminating the positivity at the heart of O’Farrell’s book. I won’t spoil it here – you’ll have to read it to find out!

Armistead Maupin – Logical Family: A Memoir

I first discovered the Tales of the City series when I was quite young and I LOVED it. The people, the place, the incredible coincidences. And the idea that everyone might have their tribe or niche. It’s a powerful thought. I’ve read those books a few times now and likely will again: few writers can create characters that you come to feel are friends. After reading them that first time, I remember discovering that they might once have been considered controversial and struggling to understand it – who couldn’t like these people? What had they done that was so awful?

Of course, the answer is nothing. But a few years further on I was a bit more aware of where those people came from, the man who wrote them into being and just what a powerful thing he did by putting their stories out there. My fascination with Maupin was born out of those books, because you always want to be reassured that someone who can create great people is themselves ‘great people’, don’t you?

Fortunately, having read his recently published memoir, Logical Family – a term Maupin coined to describe the people who make up your support network when your biological family turns out not to be the best fit – I’m just as awed by Maupin and his achievements as I’d have hoped to be.

Some people, either because of their circumstances, personality or, in Maupin’s case, both, become completely bonded to the key events of their times. Maupin is inseparable from his adopted homeland, San Francisco, and the freedoms of the liberating gay community of the 1970s, the Aids crisis, and many of the key political events along the way, such as the death of Harvey Milk. He’s met, hung out with or developed life-long friendships with everyone and I almost admire his restraint when I think of the bloated gossip-fest he could have written.

The book is a tale of two halves. Firstly, there’s his surprisingly conservative upbringing (could there be an environment more stereotypically antithetical for a young man discovering his homosexuality than a former slave-owning family from North Carolina, nostalgic for their Confederate roots?). Parts of the book feel like an apology for that past, given that Maupin went along with many of his father’s conservative Republican ideals in order to win his approval. Secondly, there is his sexual and cultural awakening in San Francisco, where he arrives as a journalist in 1971.

Memoir is the right word for this book given that it is more a series of glimpses, many without elaborations. Maupin is a master of the episodic story, likely the result of a craft honed over years of writing daily 800 word chapters for Tales of the City, which was serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle before being collected together in the novels. Logical Family is similar in tone. Anecdotes and key events are pieced together in the manner of a patchwork quilt: there’s enough to present a brilliantly engaging whole, but also a lot of surplus material left on the floor.

One article I read made the point that there is surprisingly little in the book about Maupin’s ‘logical family’ – for example, his lifelong friends or his husband, Chris – although he does make reference to many of the friends and father figures he lost along the way, including the late Christopher Isherwood. I think this is true but I also think it’s allowable. Enough is given away to shine light but I understand him wanting to keep something back.

You do find out about the inspiration behind some of the Tales of the City characters. And who, contrary to suggestion or opinion, was not an inspiration.

Ultimately, I thought this was a warm, funny, honest and inspirational read. I’m fortunate that my life has thrown up precious little cause for controversy and I’ve been able to live largely unbothered by the kind of hateful prejudice, fear and injustice that marks Maupin’s life. But I still felt powerfully affected by his idea of living a life true to who you are, of not squandering the life you’ve been given. In many ways, I could stand a lesson or two in authenticity, of being a bit more true to who I am, perhaps with the intention of living a few less moments where I walk away from a situation wishing I’d made slightly different choices. Maupin is brave and inspirational, no matter who you are or where you stand.

Highlights from a summer of reading: the rest…

I promised some miscellaneous bits from my summer reading to finish. So, in no particular order…

A scattering of essays:

Lives in Writing, David Lodge – this is hard to categorise because it’s not, as it might first appear, about people who write. Although it sort of is by a more roundabout route. It’s actually a lot about the people who write about the people who write, and a bit about the people who write in the process. Still with me? In this collection of essays, Lodge focuses on biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction/criticism, diaries and memoirs from and about famous writers and, in so doing, unpicks the writing life from a number of different perspectives. Of particular interest is Lodge’s take on biographical fiction in light of his works Author, Author and A Man of Parts (about Henry James and H.G. Wells respectively). Given that the essays were mostly originally published in a number of different contexts, there’s a really interesting breadth of writing style on offer too. I breezed through more journalistic essays, such as those on Alan Bennett, Simon Gray and Malcolm Bradbury – in fact, I think my favourite essays are those in which Lodge writes about writers who are also friends, as in the case of Gray and Bradbury – and painstakingly unpicked my way through heavier, more lit crit essays on Frank Kermode and Terry Eagleton (with some success, I hope!). But I really enjoyed having to re-engage brain with each shift in style and there’s a lot of interesting information on offer about the subjects of Lodge’s essays too. A recommended read if you’re at all interested in writers (as well as their work).

A wonderful epistolary memoir:

A Very Private Eye: an Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, Barbara Pym – I am a Pym fan and really have very little to say about this other than that, if you too are a fan of Pym then this really is a must read. Compiled by her sister, Hilary, and close friend and colleague of many years, Hazel Holt, this is a selection of extracts from Pym’s diaries, writing notebooks and letters (to, amongst others, Philip Larkin – a long-time friend and fan). It’s so lovely to hear from Pym in her own warm, astute, humorous and often poignant words. She’s a true writer, in the sense that even the littlest fragments from her notebooks are gold. Although I was aware that Pym had a bit of a resurgence later in her writing life, I had no idea just how many years she spent in the wilderness, doggedly continuing to write the novels that publishers assured her no one wanted to read. Her stoic humour in the face of all that rejection is an inspiration. Hopefully she’s currently somewhere lovely having a right good chuckle at the explosion of Pymophiles out there in the blogosphere continuing to do their level best to make sure she’s not overlooked again.

The obligatory Christie:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie – every few months I get the urge to read another Christie. This was a good one. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. Nicely played, Agatha.