My 20 Books of Summer continues apace. I’m currently on my 12th title – and am cheating madly – but only swapping in books that have been in my TBR before the beginning of 2020, or my library pile – which need to go back next week. I’m also generating more time for reading by:
- not buying any more jigsaws – I have 1 left to do (this will also help my bank balance!),
- the NT at Home screenings have finished – haven’t they been fab! Amadeus which finished the run was wonderful.
- I’m not binge-watching any new TV series (although I have started re-watching Mad Men from the beginning on Prime – but only an episode or two max at a time).
Dora: a headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch
When I read Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, reviewed here back in January, I knew that I wanted to read some of her other work – her memoir is likely to feature in my year end lists, it was that good. Her memoir was full of challenge to the reader – beginning with stillbirth, and full of so much abuse, sex and drugs, that it was a wonder she survived to become fulfilled and happy. There were mixed comments about her most recent novel The Book of Joan, but when I spotted her first novel published after her memoir, Dora: a headcase in the Library – I grabbed it.
The novel is inspired by one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous cases (see Wikipedia here). Dora was the pseudonym Freud gave to his patient Ida Bauer, an older teenager who suffered from aphonia (loss of voice) and a cough, and he diagnosed her as suffering from an overabundance of emotion – ie hysteria.
Yuknavitch takes these basic facts and runs with them to create a contemporary interpretation narrated by Ida, who prefers to be called Dora (after Dora the Explorer). She’s a high school arts student in Seattle with a depressed mum and a philandering dad. In the first short chapter, she shocks her parents by shaving off all her hair with her dad’s safety razor. In the second she tells us about her weekly visit to Dr Sig – Siggy in her father’s ‘batmobile’ – as she calls his custom made Lexus.
Here’s a tip: when you’ve had it up to here with your parents, develop coughing fits. I’m serious. When they come at you with their haranguing or advice or expensive wine-mouthed moralities – start coughing. The more they try to say, the more you could – shrug your shoulders and cough your face off and shake your head like there’s nothing you can do about it.
She coughs a lot in the car! She anticipates the Sig’s reaction to her hair.
If anyone tells you that going to see a shrink is therapy? Tell them to suck a fart out of your sweet asshole. It’s not therapy. It’s epic Greek drama. You gotta study up. You got to bring game.
To Ida/Dora at this stage it’s a game, with her parents, with her therapist, with everyone bar her close friends, Little Teena, Ave Maria and Obsidian. Then, there’s Marlene – a half-German’ manwoman’ from Rwanda. They met at a punk gig where Marlene was working, and Marlene has looked out for ‘Lamskotelet’ ever since – Ida/Dora going to her flat after school, and lending her books, Marlene has an interesting collection.
Ida’s prize possession is her high quality voice recorder. It sits in her Dora the Explorer bag and records everything – all her sessions with Dr Sig. Getting hold of drugs is no problem with these teens, and when they hatch a plan for Dora to spike Dr Sig’s coffee with Viagra and to film and record the effects, it all gets totally out of hand. The hysteria is turned onto everyone else when Dora’s film gets accidentally released into the world. Dora also finds herself with the stepmom from hell as her own mother decamps to Vienna, and her dad moves in Mrs K (another Freudian nod) who has left her husband for him.
As coming of age stories go, this one is something else! Dora, despite everything is strangely likeable, there is a real sense of it being a phase she’s going through – as with Alex in Burgess’s Clockwork Orange. But these teens’ behaviour is otherwise quite challenging with all the drink, drugs, obsessing about rather than getting sex, pranks and, for the most part, lack of parenting. Thank goodness for Marlene who is simply a brilliant character. Having read Yuknavitch’s memoir, I was prepared for a challenging read and I got it, but this novel was huge fun. Chuck Palanuik, Yuknavitch’s mentor, writes a foreword about mental health, reality TV and therapy in public. His last comment really sums it all up:
The world of Dora is not just possible, it’s inevitable. It’s revenge as the ultimate therapy.
Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn
One of my 20 Books of Summer aims was to finally read all five novels in the Patrick Melrose series by St Aubyn. Mother’s Milk is the 4th, and I read it alongside Rebecca (her review here). I read and reviewed the first three books here and here.
This novel was first published in 2005, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006 – and I remember trying it around that time, finding it unremarkable. However, I hadn’t read the first three books – now, I could see how this novel resonates with references to the previous episodes in the series and it was transformed into something else completely. So, I am really perplexed at how it got so far in the Booker as the fourth part in a series that doesn’t stand alone.
Mother’s Milk moves on another ten years to 2000. Unlike the previous installments which are each set over a single weekend, event or holiday, this time we follow the Melrose family over four years – but the same week’s holiday each August. (I was interested in this, as David Nicholls who, as it happens, adapted the Melrose books for the TV series, employed a similar approach for his super novel One Day).
In 2000, the Melroses are back in the South of France at the ‘chateau’, scene of Patrick’s abuse by his father in the first book. We begin though in the maternity suite at Robert’s birth – almost Nutshell like – before reverting to Robert, who has been remembering his first few days which, now he as a new brother Thomas, are dissipating, and this annoys him. For a five-year-old, Robert, is an accomplished mimic with a vocabulary way beyond his years – the image of his father in this respect.
It’s thirty pages into the novel before Patrick is first mentioned by name, as a new character, Seamus, is introduced. Seamus is an Irish former nurse turned new-age guru – and has charmed Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, to set up a charitable foundation to run courses at the chateau – and to leave the chateau to said charity. Eleanor now lives in a local nursing home having suffered a stroke. Patrick obviously hates Seamus and all he stands for – not necessarily for not having the chateau to inherit, but for Seamus having fooled his mother. Eleanor would hand over the chateau immediately, but Patrick who has power of attorney manages to keep it in the family for a couple of years more, doing all he can to frustrate Seamus and insisting on continuing the family hols there each August.
Patrick may no longer be a heroin addict, but he still drinks too much, takes too many sleeping tablets against his insomnia. His relationship with his wife Mary, since the arrival of Thomas has cooled, she is pouring all her love into her newest son, and Patrick feeling spurned will have an affair with old girlfriend Julia, who holidays with them after her divorce with her daughter.
Things come to a head after the third summer holiday, and Patrick has to sign over the chateau and moves her back to London, where she begins to say she wants to die. The next summer, the Melroses head for New York, for a mostly disastrous short holiday (they return early), there are plenty of echoes back to the second book in which Patrick went to NYC at the height of his addiction to collect his father’s ashes.
The overarching theme of this volume though is motherhood and mothering/parenting seen from various points of view. Naturally Patrick’s is the most witty, but now also wistful as these quotes show:
[to friend Johnny] “…Thomas is making me revisit my own infancy in a way that Robert never did. Maybe it’s the prominence of that old prop, a mother who needs mothering, which has lent so much authenticity to this revival.”
He struggled so hard to get away from his roles as a father and a husband, only to miss them the moment his succeeded.
He had taken Mary, a good woman, and made her into an instrument of torture, a weird echo of Eleanor forty years ago: never available, always exhausted by an altruistic portrait which didn’t include him. He had achieved this by the ironic device of rejecting the sort of woman who would have made a bad mother, like Eleanor, and choosing one who was such a good mother that she was incapable of letting one drop of her love escape from her children.
St Aubyn switches between points of view more in this novel than previously. From Robert and Patrick, we hear from Mary properly for the first time. Mary has her own problem mother, known as Kettle who, while having a personality the opposite of Eleanor’s, was just as hands off a mother. Doubtless, St Aubyn chose the name Mary for the sainted mother of Patrick’s children deliberately. Mary is still at that stage where motherhood of toddlers is utterly exhausting, and can go from happy to sad in an instant, she is also well aware of Patrick’s affair:
She sometimes felt she was about to forget her own existence complete. She had to cry to reclaim herself. […] … to get a self back in order to sacrifice it again. She had always been like that.
Mary was alone with Thomas for the first week of August. Patrick was detained in London by a difficult case which she suspected should be called Julia versus Mary, but was pretending to be called something else. How could she say she was jealous of Julia when the next moment she was not? Sometimes, in fact, she was grateful to her. She didn’t want Patrick to be taken away, nor did she think e would be. Mary was both naturally jealous and naturally permissive, and the only way these two sides of her could collaborate was by cultivating the permissiveness. That way Patrick never really wanted to leave her, and so her jealousy was satisfied as well.
Although this novel has its comic moments, mainly due to things the children say or do such as Robert mimicking their old nanny, and Thomas swearing like a trouper after hearing his father effing and blinding, it is not a comedy in the way the others have been. Although by returning to the chateau, the echoes of the first novel, Never Mind, are strong, it lacks the former’s tragedy. Instead, it presents the domestic drama of the Melroses’ lives and impending mid-life crisis which will surely happen for Patrick in the final volume, At Last. I am purely speculating on that though, having not started to read it yet. You get a sense of what’s to come in the last chapters though in the clean break with France, revisiting New York and the wishes of Patrick’s increasingly frail mother.
As always, I admired St Aubyn’s elegant prose and ability to swap between points of view. Covering a wider period of time, at 238 pages in the edition I read, this is the longest of the series so far; although still a short novel it had a slightly different feel – more like a musical rondo, or theme and variations, a form which often happens before the climactic last movement of a symphony. Whilst not my favourite installment so far, I certainly appreciated the richness of allusion in this one. (8.5/10)