On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands

 

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph

Yusra is the middle sister of three daughters living with their parents in Damascus. Their father is a swimming coach, obsessed with training his two eldest girls to excel. Being in the pool is one of their first memories and being pushed to succeed an ordinary part of childhood, as habitual as their going to school.

Not everyone in the community approves of the girls swimming, it clashes with tradition, despite the diversity that exists.

A lot of people don’t understand about us swimming. They don’t see the hard work and dedication it takes us to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don’t approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I’m nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself.

Nothing gets in the way of the girls training, even when they don’t feel like it or have an injury, it’s clear their Dad is a disciplinarian and is instilling strength and resilience in his daughters, while their mother is there watching, waiting and supporting them all the way through.

When Yusra is six they watch they watch the finals of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on television. It’s the 100m men’s butterfly and their Dad tells them to watch lane four. It’s the American Michael Phelps. It’s a defining moment for the Yusra.

I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I’m hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I’ll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying.

Though she is in the background of Yusra’s story, I find the mother’s quiet strength and nurturing of significance in the story. Both her own personal development and her continuity in being there for the girls.

Photo by Heart Rules on Pexels.com

Following a terrible scene where her elder sister Sara is having her shoulders stretched and her collar-bone is broken, the doctor insists she rests. Her father is displeased, while her mother tries to help.

Since learning to swim she’s been teaching water aerobics at a hot springs spa south of Damascus, close to the city of Daraa. She’s branched out into massage therapy and tries her new skills out on Sara’s shoulders.

As the political situation in Syria deteriorates, it becomes dangerous for them to return to their home, culminating in one evening when they return from visiting family to find tanks at either end of their street. A soldier holding his assault rifle in the air tells him to take his family and leave.

‘I’m not leaving my house,’ he says.

‘Then get us out of here at least,’ says Mum, her voice choked with panicked tears.

He drives them some distance away, then sets off on foot alone to return to their home,  a mistake, though he won’t learn his lesson yet. They are forced to abandon their home and stay with family, until they find another apartment in a quieter part of town.

Though they continue at school and in the pool, people are beginning to leave. Their father is offered a coaching job in Jordan and departs, alone, sending his salary to them regularly.

One by one, friends and neighbours drift away. Groups of siblings, whole friendship groups, families disappear.  The majority leave for Lebanon or Turkey and then overstay their tourist visas. Some of them end up in Europe. Most of the boys my age are either planning to leave or have already gone. Once guys hit eighteen, they’re eligible for compulsory military service in the army. Only students and men without brothers are exempt. In normal times, its just a fact of Syrian life. But now there’s no doubt: going into the army means kill or be killed.

Yusra turns seventeen, her sister has quit swimming and for a period she does as well, without her father there fighting in her corner, she loses some of her will, until she meets her friends again and decides to return. But when a bomb falls on the building, everything changes.

Sara announces she is leaving, and Yusra will go with her. They will send for their mother and younger sister when they arrive in Europe. They are heading for Germany and will have to take a small boat from Turkey across to Greece, paying smugglers at various places along the way.

It’s a fraught journey, the boat crossing particularly, an overloaded vessel that looks like it won’t make it, that forces the sisters into the water for hours to lighten the load to prevent it sinking. The sea is a danger, but there will be more worrying experiences ahead as they attempt to cross hostile borders and find accommodation in some countries  that refuse to rent rooms to Syrians.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s not until they arrive safely in Berlin that it begins to dawn on them, the immensity of what they have been through. Once settled in the refugee camp and as they begin their asylum process, Yusra finds a pool to train in and opportunities open up for her and Sara, and soon she is on track to attain that childhood dream, though not in the manner she expected, there remain hurdles to confront. And the trauma of others which they’re seeing daily on their Facebook timelines continues, lessening any joy they might feel.

When she is struggling to accept the offer of being part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team, it is her father who reminds her that it isn’t always about the swimming.

‘Very few Syrians get this chance to speak up,’ he says.  ‘You can be their voice. You know a big part of their story because you’ve been through it too. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be heard.’

It’s an incredible story of a young woman and her family, who becomes something of a reluctant heroine and inspiration for young people from the region and for refugees everywhere. It’s very honest, she shares her struggles in accepting the role and opportunity she is given, while being grateful to those who’ve welcomed, helped and made it possible, all the while aware of the continued struggles and horrors being faced by those who couldn’t leave or died trying.

Further Reading

Illustrated Children’s Book – Yusra Swims by Julie Abery

Article in Guardian – Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Women and Hollywood Article – Sally El Hosaini Will Direct Yusra Mardini Biopic “The Swimmers”

Holistic News – 2 Min Video Introducing Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer that represented refugees at the Olympics in Rio.

Rio Highlights – Yusra Mardini’s 100m Butterfly race

Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

Top Five Memoirs

Non Fiction Memoir

Continuing with reading lists, next are my Top Five Memoirs.

It was hard to whittle this list down to five, I could easily have included many others I’ve read and reviewed such as Jeanette Winterson’s gut-punching, exploration of an ill-fitted adoption Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Helen MacDonald’s grief-laden obsession to train a goshawk H is for Hawk, Jacqueline Woodson’s charming, free verse of childhood and old family stories Brown Girl Dreaming, and Tove Jansson’s Finnish island tales and escapades The Summer Book & A Winter Book.

I’ve chosen five lesser known, equally brilliant memoirs, all books that when I look at the titles and covers, take me straight back to the remembered joy of their individual reading experience.

In pondering what it is that elevates some memoirs to that level of something universally understood, I recall one of Vivian Gornick’s insights from The Situation and The Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Top Five Memoir

1.Tales From the Heart, True Stories of My Childhood by Marsye Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Memoirs that succeed record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self, “a flash of insight illuminating the idea grows out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience” and I can think of no better place to start than with Maryse Condé, one of my favourite authors.

The youngest of eight children, by the time she was born her mother was 43, her father 63, thus there were many family stories and life experiences she wasn’t present for, tales she would rely on oral retellings of her siblings and extended family to fill in. In these stories are planted the seeds of her future works, the lack of knowledge of her cultural history and her subsequent research into it, will manifest in her future historical masterpiece Segu, her desire to understand her mother and know her deceased grandmother will inspire Victoire, My Mother’s Mother, her first visit to Africa leads to her debut novel Heremakhonon about a young West Indian woman’s quest for roots.

This short collection of short tales is a beautiful introduction to the life and inspiration of an extraordinary woman and author who has given us so much through her stories and her persistent research and desire to understand what lies behind the lives we lead.

2. Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

After reading her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory I became aware of this memoir and I was particularly intrigued because of it’s focus on the author’s father and Uncle. I have an affinity for books written by women born in or having a strong connection to the Caribbean, I love their storytelling tradition, their connection to a sometimes magical matriarchal force and nature.

This book was unique because it was the first time I’d read something that delved into the masculine. It straddles both a traditional life in Haiti and a new life in America, a unique story of a family trying to improve the lives of their loved ones, narrated by a woman who successfully straddles both, witness to a love between brothers. As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

3. Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay is a wonderful Scottish poet and has written a heart-warming story of her connection to her adoptive Scottish family and to her slow-burning desire to uncover the mystery behind her existence. That journey begins at the University in Aberdeen, taking her to a suburb in Milton Keynes and a village in Nigeria, a place she has dreamed of and imagined but had no connection with until she arrives there and walks the red, dust road that will awaken something deep inside her.

It’s a unique cross cultural story, exciting in its revelations and profound in it’s understanding as she learns what family and belonging really mean to her, expressed with the beautiful incantation of a poet.

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal

Remember this? What an incredible family memoir the artist, ceramic potter Edmund De Waal put together here, telling part of the story of his extended family though the voyage of a stunning collection of netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures) and a family history that begins in Odessa, grows and is almost destroyed in Vienna, takes side journeys to Tokyo via that netsuke collection, now sitting in London.

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book, except that it’s a lot more interesting to read the history through the eyes of a hare with amber eyes than one man looking only at himself. In this way we learn something about the art, culture and society of the places these sculptures have inhabited as well as the family history over a tumultuous century. Truly unique, engaging, educational, and a deserving winner of a number of literature prizes.

5. Unbowed One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

I finish with the story of a remarkable woman who I wish had stayed around longer and become more well-known, though reading her story shows us how much of a difference she did make to other woman’s lives in her native country Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and passed away in 2011.

Wangari Maathai was one of a group of young people from East Africa given scholarships and brought to the US in the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ of 1950 & 1960, who gained a degree in the US then returned to Kenya for her PhD. A scientist, initially she worked a veterinarian but her desire to do something practical and far-reaching moved her to found The Green Belt Movement and become involved in sustainable development. She would empower many women to create sustainable enterprises and won many battles to preserve public parks from being given over to urban development. An amazing, inspiring woman and a role model for our times.

Have you read any inspiring memoirs recently?

Further Reading

Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

Top 5 Nature-Inspired Reads

Top 5 Spiritual Well-being Reads

Top 5 Translated Fiction

Top 5 Uplifting Fiction

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Art of Personal Narrative

A deliberate slow read for me as I wished to absorb the teaching, while researching and writing my own work, something definitely clicked in my understanding which I hope translates across into my writing.

On The Essay
In the first half Gornick dissects a few essays, citing them as evidence of her theory of the narrative that really demands attention and works, because it has been structured, attention being given to understanding the difference between the situation and the story.

A theory that came to her like an epiphany while attending a funeral, where one person in particular moved her more than the others.

Her words had deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my heart. Why? I wondered even as I brushed away the tears. Why had these words made a difference?

She concludes that because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking. She had created a ‘persona’ of herself in order to eulogize the deceased. An instrument of illumination.

The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.

But getting from the understanding of a theory to being able to apply it in one’s writing was something that eluded her until she analysed her own attempt of personal journalism (part personal essay and part social criticism) when she was invited to go to Egypt and write about the middle class existence in Cairo. Overwhelmed by the energy of the city, the drama of its citizens, the work mimicked Egypt itself. It would take years before she was able to control the material with sufficient composure to see the situation and narrate the kind of story she wished to share.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.

Using examples from different essays and memoirs, she shares extracts to demonstrate the theory in it’s most eminent form e.g. Augustine’s Confessions, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, Ackerley’s My Father and Myself.

She compares a trilogy of essays that exhibit the way self-implication can shape a piece of nonfiction writing: Joan Didion’s essay on the companionship of a migraine, ‘In Bed’, Harry Crews’s divided feelings about home in ‘Why I Live Where I Live’ and Edward Hoagland’s disturbing urban nature essay, ‘The Courage of Turtles’.

We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows – moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge. The act of clarifying on the page is an intimate part of the metaphor.

Joan Didion, perhaps the most practiced of them all, excavated her subconscious regularly, stayed in touch with the times, and wrote right down to the core of her self-examined existence.

“I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity … but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger.”

Joan Didion, ‘In Bed’, 1968

On The Memoir

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required.

She posits that modern memoir is of value to the reader only if it is able to dramatise and reflect on the experience of transformation or ‘becoming’ as the writer moves away from that person one has been told they should be towards the more authentic version that might be revealed beneath.

Quoting the example of Gosse’s, Father and Son she observes:

That this son must come into his own by making war not on a parent who is willful and self-involved (which he is) but on one filled with the tender regard that alone gives a growing creature the ability to declare itself (which he also is). This is the thing the reader is meant to register; this is the narrator’s wisdom. It is the betrayal of love that is required in order that one become.

These memoirs that succeed are works that record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.

For each of them a flash of insight illuminating the idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organising principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.

Ultimately the advice she gives is to aspiring writer’s is to ask oneself certain questions, both in reading and in writing:

What, we would ask of the manuscript,was the larger preoccupation here? the true experience? the real subject? Not that such questions could be answered, only that it seemed vital to me that they be asked.

That exploration of the subconscious might precipitate insights to rise to the surface and spill over onto the page, by digging deeper, one may stumble across the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance.

“who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two” had become my single-minded practice”

She ends with an observation about timing, the thing that a writer can rarely predict.

Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at a time that we are reading.

This explains why a worthy book might be overly criticized while one of fleeting value is highly praised, the former, great though it may be, misses the mark because what it has to say can not be absorbed at the moment, while the latter

is well received because what it is addressing is alive – now, right now – in the shared psyche.Which is perhaps as it should be. The inner life is nourished only if it gets what it needs when it needs it.

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson tr. Tara F. Chace

A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World

Living in Sweden and remembering nothing of her native language Portugese that she spoke until she was adopted at the age of eight, Christina Rickardsson, now 32-years-old is about to embark on her first trip back to the country of her birth to reconnect with elements of that initial period in her life, vividly recalled.

Recurring nightmares of her childhood awaken something in her sub-conscious, creating an emotional/ spiritual crisis that she addresses by revisiting .

I watched my eyes fill with tears as I realized that the little girl who had run for her life had just kept on running. I needed to stop running and once and for all, for my own sake, process what had happened.

A dual narrative flips between the present as she returns to Sao Paulo with her friend Rivia, who will act as her translator and the past where she shares the vivid memories and equally strong emotions of her early childhood years.

She reviews the adoption papers that have been locked in a safe for the past 24 years.

I’ve never felt the need to find out who I am, where I come from, or why I was abandoned. I know who I am, where I come from; most of all I know that I wasn’t abandoned. Kidnapping might be too strong a word to use for how our adoption transpired, but sometimes that’s what it felt like.

Some of the things she reads disturb her because they don’t ring true, she retains strong and tender feelings of love towards her biological mother and recalls the trauma of their separation but has never understood why. Her story is written in a desire to restore her mother’s name and tell their truth as she remembers it, to fill in the gaps in her knowledge and find out if her mother is still alive.

She recalls details of living in a forest cave in the Brazilian wilderness with her mother, of surviving on the streets of Sao Paulo and her time in an orphanage before she and her almost 2-year-old brother are adopted by a Swedish couple and begin a new life there.

Map from traditional symbols of culture and the nature of Brazil

She recalls her friendships with other children when they live in the streets, special moments, terrifying incidents and the strong emotions they evoke are equally remembered, her instinct for self-preservation is strong and her reactions to things spill over into her new life in Sweden, where they are often deemed inappropriate.

On some level, I began to understand that people, especially grown-ups, weren’t interested in the truth but rather in a truth that suited them. They only wanted to know about things that made stuff easier for them. It didn’t matter that I was walling off part of myself, that I was turning into someone else.

The relationship she remembers with her mother from childhood is tender, the bond strong, she defends it, and holds tight to the memories. There is a respectful appreciation for her Swedish family and clearly a difference between her feelings and those of her brother, who recalls little of his life in Brazil before their adoption.

There’s an undercurrent of sadness in this accomplished memoir, of a woman who is neither one thing nor the other, who can never let got of who she is, but must continue to live as that whom she has become.

She repeats often a kind of mantra, that life for her is not about finding herself, but about creating herself. And yet the two go hand in hand, as her story so adeptly shows, though she was separated from her mother, her country and culture, she lived in it long enough for something of it to have sunk deep into her psyche, which is not the case for children adopted at birth, or as toddlers. Many search to find out what she already knew, before they can freely go on to ‘create’ themselves anew, or to realise that they can be who they are, because they can make peace with the mystery of their unknown heritage.

I felt so much rage growing up that it frightened me. It filled me and destroyed me. I felt it, but I didn’t know how to handle it, so I smiled and laughed even more and did well in school…I had walled off my true self.

Eventually she finds a way to navigate the two selves by turning the focus outward, towards helping others, addressing the ache of having had to suppress her true self for so long.

She shares one of the more troubling stories of her childhood in a 15 minute TED Talk below and the inspiration behind the words in the title, Never Stop Walking.

Further Reading/Listening

Christina’s TEDTalk : The Lottery of Life

Article, 25 Oct 2018 Humaniam.org : Children, the main victims of violence and crime in Brazil

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Without a Map, a Memoir by Meredith Hall

In 1965, in a New Hampshire town, Meredy, the 16-year-old daughter of a family raised by a mother trying to keep up appearances after her self-obsessed husband abandons them, (and later berates them for not being happy at his subsequent new marriage) discovers she is pregnant.

It is a threshold era, both locally, (Hampton Beach riots) in the US, (war in Vietnam) and in her life, it is a time when everyone in her family is moving on, leaving her open and vulnerable to the events that lead to her predicament.

I feel the swelling energy, the inexplicable, restless hunger, rising in my own innocent life. I don’t care at all about the music or the drinking or the gathering together of teenagers for fun and the thrill of belonging. But my father is gone. He has a new life, a new wife and daughter, and never calls or visits. I miss him badly. My mother is inaccessible. My older brother and sister have moved on to their own lives, leaving me alone at home and on the beach while my mother works and plays with Peter.

Immediately removed from everything familiar, home, school, church and community, she is sent in disgrace to her father’s new household and ordered to never go outside or if there was company, to remain in silence upstairs.

It is true that my shunning was a message from our community to my mother. Her rejection of me was a measure of the humiliation she felt. She believed until her death that I caused her to lose her friends and her stature in the town.

Passing the long weeks of her pregnancy confined in this way, she eventually gives birth, her baby boy is removed from her, adopted out and she is sent to a boarding school for young people perceived as misfits (where she is forbidden to speak of the reason she has been sent there) to finish her education.

“We must protect the girls,” Mrs. Kroehne said. “You understand.” I do understand. I am a contaminant and must be kept silent. It has been three months since my baby was born, three months since I walked away from my baby with milk dripping from my breasts. I will not say this to any of these young people during my time among them. I will construct careful lies and memorize them to explain myself, my dark inward life, my hunger for love, my tough resistance to trust.

Meredith goes through the many stages of grief, for the loss of her baby, her adolescence and so much more, initially doing what is expected, then rejecting everyone, traumatized by the experience to the point of becoming reckless with her own life.

Mourning with no end, and a sense that I had lost everything – my child, my mother’s love and protection, my father’s love and protection, the life I had once imagined for myself – hollowed me out. I floated every day alone and disconnected, and could not find comfort or release. I understood clearly that my history had harmed me, had cut me off from the normal connections between people. Every day for five years I had been afraid of this disconnection, feeling the possibility of perfect detachment within my reach, like a river running alongside, inviting me to step into its current.

Incredibly, if not quite overcoming it, she does survive her own casting out to return and among other things pen this moving, honest, brave memoir.  It is an important story and chance to be heard, of a young mother forced to abandon her baby, like so many who are rarely given any kind of emotional support, who have been shunned, shamed and silenced.

Meredith Hall will eventually rise up out of her own misery, gift herself the development of her creative writing skills, ultimately to be able to help others write their stories and to publish this important one, her own.

This is the first time I’ve read an account of a birth mother’s story, so many of these stories never get told due to the shame they have endured and the distance they have put between their past, their attempt to live a new life which buried those experiences deep and the fear of confronting any of it.

It is courageous that Meredith Hall has pushed through that to share the reality of this traumatic experience from her perspective. There are gaps in the story, there are those who have been spared the lens of scrutiny, but there is enough here to to allow readers to feel empathy for the situation and understand the fear some have in overcoming the same, the conditions under which they must live out their entire lives, often never revealing the secret, never able to connect with the innocent child who grows up understanding nothing of the loss they too feel, until an age when they’re often told to be grateful for what they’ve been supposedly gifted.

It has just been discovered that women carry fetal cells from all the babies they have carried. Crossing the defensive boundaries of our immune system and mixing with our own cells, the fetal cells circulate in the mother’s bloodstream for decades after each birth. The body does not tolerate foreign cells, which trigger illness and rejection. But a mother’s body incorporates into her own the cells of her children as if they recognize each other, belong to each other. This fantastic melding of two selves, mother and child, is called human microchimerism. My three children are carried in my bloodstream still….

How did we not know this? How can this be a surprise?

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