Non-fiction – paperback; Quartet Books; 96 pages; 2014. Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story is a deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.
It was first published in France, in 1988, where it became a bestseller. It has just been reissued by Quartet Books — which first published it in English more than 20 years ago — in a rather handsome edition, complete with French flaps.
At just 96 pages in length, A Woman’s Story packs quite a lot in. Ernaux not only examines the relationship she had with her mother — often in painstaking, heartbreaking, too-close-for-comfort detail — she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her bored (and somewhat meaningless) retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
What emerges is a fascinating portrait of two women tied together by their biological relationship but never, truly, close. While it’s not a rosy account — there’s too much bitterness and conflict between them for that — it does reveal Ernaux’s admiration, her love and her attempt to reconcile her mother’s senile dementia with the “strong, radiant mother she once was”.
In many ways, the book is as much about mothers and daughters as it is about growing old, of the burdens we can place on loved ones and an examination of the grieving process.
The author, however, describes it like this:
This book can be seen as a literary venture as its purpose is to find out the truth about my mother, a truth that can be conveyed only by words. (Neither photographs, nor my own memories, nor even the reminiscences of my family can bring me this truth.)
This is a theme Ernaux returns to again and again: this itching to get to the truth, to portray her mother in a fair light, even though she knows that her memories are coloured by emotion. She has a hard time trying to put her mother’s brusque manners, her desire to be a confidante, yet always bitterly critical, her lack of education and her desperate social climbing into context.
About midway through she confesses that she sometimes thought she was a good mother, at other times a bad one. “To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter that wasn’t me,” she writes.
This objectivity feels authentic, because there are thoughts and incidents revealed here that feel too painful and honest. It’s not an uncomfortable read — indeed, I flew through it in an hour or so, the writing is so eloquent — but it is a deeply affecting and poignant one.