Monday, September 21, 2009

Too Many Mothers

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a charming yet hard-hitting, playful memoir about growing up on a Spokane Indian Reservation. I saw Alexie speak when he was promoting the book, and I have my sister to thank for this recommendation. I’ll save my review proper for later, for reasons which will become clear.

The last book I finished on the trip was, you guessed it, another memoir, this time by Roberta Taylor called Too Many Mothers. I must say originally I felt obliged to read it as Jamie bought it for me from the used book shop in Cardiff market (seeing as how he knew Roberta Taylor from The Bill, read and recommended the book, and I’d enjoyed her performance in Cuddlesome with Peter Davison). However, I quickly became engrossed in the book and was distraught when I thought I’d left it on the plane after coming in to Albuquerque. However, I found it and finished it on the way back!

It’s a very interesting memoir in that a lot of it coincides with those of John Barrowman and Dawn French (no, really!) in terms of familial relations. It’s subtitled “An East End Childhood,” and is a sophisticated and unsentimental look at a clan of poverty-stricken Londoners, many with wicked tendencies (Dawn French’s grandmother is almost the double of Roberta Taylor’s). In some ways it reminds me of Sister Carrie. Like John Barrowman’s book, it takes a non-chonological approach to telling a story, though it’s less the story of Roberta Taylor, actress and however else she may describe herself, it’s almost fictionalized family history. That’s my favorite kind. I loved how Taylor made me see parallels in my own family; I, too, was raised mostly by women. I can’t claim we have the same skeletons in our cupboards, drama, petty larceny, and cruelty (as far as I know!!), but when you can follow your family back to the early 20th century, as I can with my grandparents, you begin to see parallels.

What I really liked about the book was the structure and Taylor’s ability to go into any “character” (her relatives become characters) and tell their story, not from their POV (she’s still granddaughter Rob), but in a way that makes them sympathetic even if they are, like her grandmother, rather vicious. The book begins with Boxing Day 1956, a narrative that continues throughout, and forms rather an effective homing beacon that the reader knows will always find him or her. Taylor uses this as the jumping off point to take us from the youth of her grandmother Mary, from a truly “low” class of East Enders, who marries Bob, a sailor who when he finally returns from duty, keeps making her pop out kids. Then he turns to drinking and domestic violence. With this in mind you can empathize with Mary’s sourness in later life and her ill-fated love of fine linen.

Mary’s eldest daughter Flo strikes a bit of a chord with me. Dropped on her head as a baby, she has developmental problems throughout her life that of course go undiagnosed and make her a source of mockery. She’s the “dozy cow with her funny turns.” My eldest aunt, while she wasn’t hurt like that (as far as I know!!) has gotten the same kind of rap. In Taylor’s family, there were three other girls of a similar age (kind-hearted Doll, hard-as-nails Viv, Rob’s mother Win) before two of Mary’s surprise pregnancies. The family is a large and diverse one, especially when Viv marries a Lascar (then his brother, then a family friend . . . ). Win’s story is poignant as for a very long time Rob doesn’t know her own parentage.

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about this book. It got funnier toward the end as the inverse proportion of bleakness receded!

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