Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 133 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If you have ever read any translated novellas published by Peirene Press, then Meike Ziervogel* will be a familiar name for she is the founder and publisher of that independent and award-winning London-based company.
Meike is also an accomplished writer, and her first book, Magda, which fictionalised the story of the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was published by Salt Publishing to critical acclaim last year. (I am yet to read it.)
Her new book, Clara’s Daughter, explores universal themes focused on love, marriage, growing old and the sometimes complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.
Set in north London, the story revolves around middle-aged businesswoman Michele, who is successful at her job — she loves the “status and illusion of power that it gives” — but is floundering at home. Her children, Felix and Thea, have finally left the nest, and now Michele and her husband, Jim, are forced to confront the reality that they no longer have anything in common after 25 years of marriage.
To complicate matters, Michele’s mother, Clara (of the title), needs looking after — there is talk of placing her in a home, although Michele’s sister, Hilary, doesn’t like the idea. Eventually, Clara is installed in the basement of Michele’s home, but despite sharing a house the two are unable to relax in each other’s company and go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to communicate.
I hear her turn the key, open the door, close it. For a moment there is silence while she quietly removes her shoes. Then she tiptoes into the kitchen. I hear her take a glass. Silence. Then water is running out the taps. I know she will stand at the top of the stairs to the basement, holding her breath, listening. Nothing except darkness will meet her. I am pretending to be asleep.
The book highlights the tensions in Michele’s marriage as well as the tensions between her, her much more “forgiving” but highly strung younger sister, and Clara, who is fiercely independent but also fearful, lonely and increasingly paranoid.
Clara’s Daughter is told in uncluttered prose (though, admittedly, the first chapter feels a bit “flowery”, which is not indicative of the rest of the book), from various viewpoints and in brief chapters that jump backwards and forwards in time. The narrative is informed by an uncanny sense of silence and of space, which not only gives the story room to “breathe” but helps create a sense of increasing tension.
The clever structure shows how past resentments can fester if not dealt with, as well as fleshing out the frailty of sexual love, the harsh realities of family duty and the different sides of ourselves that we present at work and home.
I found it a rather taut drama about domestic and matriarchal power in which each character is stuck in a “role” from which they can’t truly escape. It made me think a lot about how we treat our aged parents and whether daughters are always destined to become their mothers. This story doesn’t exactly provide the answers, but for a book that is less than 140 pages, it certainly packs a lot in.
It’s occasionally chilling but has a distinct ring of truth about it. I came away from the book feeling slightly unnerved, as if I’d had a ringside seat at a family gathering I wasn’t supposed to attend. It’s not designed to be voyeuristic, but the characters are so realistically drawn, so flawed and full of foibles, I felt I’d got personally caught up in their funny little power plays…
* In the interests of full disclosure, I know Meike personally.