The Book of Mother

Violaine Huisman, 2018

I have to admit first and foremost that this novel hit extremely close to home, and may shadow my review. It is beautifully written with complex characterization and an engaging plot — I can understand why it was nominated for the International Booker. But I found the characters very frustrating.

The book is split into three parts. The first and third part are told from the point of view of Violaine, one of Catherine’s two daughters. The middle section is told in third person, focused on Catherine’s life and the events that led to her mental breakdown that we learn about in part one.

The first part shows us Violaine and her sister’s lives with Catherine, who is unpredictable. She suffers with mental illness and is prone to outbursts. All of her relationships are turbulent, and Violaine and her sister do all they can to help keep her balanced. This first part is told somewhat in chronological order, but is littered with memories and general observations that I found difficult to follow. In spite of the explanation for Catherine’s erratic behavior that comes in the second part, I found it difficult to sympathize with her, and infuriating to read her daughters’ absolute devotion to her. Catherine is quick to remind her daughters of all she gave up for them:

Can you get it through your heads once and for all that all I’ve done is for your sakes, everything I’ve done with my life is for you? I’ve sacrificed everything, my whole life, everything revolves around you, and even so, it’s never enough for you, you always need more!

However, she doesn’t seem to understand all the pain she causes her daughters, or that her insistence on being in their lives is actually hurting them. While I can excuse this due to the mental illness, I can’t understand Violaine’s blind loyalty, even as an adult. She seems to understand that her mother’s expectations are outlandish, but it does not shift her sense of responsibility:

Maman had managed to survive thanks to us, she’d say, thanks to her girls, she had kept on living in order to fulfill her role as mother. Her sole reason to live was to remain our mother. What would become of her without us?

Violaine is the name of the narrator as well as the author, however the book is categorised as a novel. I haven’t investigated yet whether it is based on the author’s own experiences, but some of the observations are so similar to my own, I would strongly doubt it is not at least somewhat autobiographical. In other words, you can’t make this stuff up! Two stars.

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