On reading MOUTHING THE WORDS there is no escaping the fact that Thelma is sexually abused by her father. This fact dominates everything and is at the root of her eating disorders, problems forming other relationships, anxiety attacks, horrendous dreams, and the split personalities she uses as a coping mechanism. As such, you might expect this to be a dreary, depressing book, but it isn’t. On the contrary it’s funny, and often laugh out loud funny.
As a child , Thelma asks other adults to adopt her and when that doesn’t work she uses her intelligence as a means of escape. But distance does not mean she is free from her past, and that includes the mother who refused to believe Thelma was being abused. It’s only through some very special friendships that Thelma learns how strong she is and begins to imagine a future for herself. The book ends with a conversation between Thelma and one of her personalities, the feisty Heroin, who is fast fading and takes the opportunity to tell Thelma that it was her, not Heroin, who once bit her father’s cheek until it bled. The mouth and words are a powerful theme throughout and this revelation causes Thelma to realise that, for perhaps the first time she can remember, she is actually speaking – ‘not mouthing. Not typing and twitching. Not writing a suicide note the length of a novel that will never be finished.’ At the same time, she realises she has a great deal to say – both about her own life as a woman and that of the women she sees around her. It’s a wonderful end to the book and, if any story deserves such a positive ending, this one certainly does.
MOUTHING THE WORDS was bought for me by a friend I was at University with and who sadly I am no longer in touch with. It has been sitting on my shelves waiting for a re-read for years but was overlooked, I think, because it became jumbled in my head with so many other books of that time that were about abuse and eating disorders. I am glad I have found it again and wish I could find the friend who bought it for me too.
Filed under comedy, drama
Don’t read this is if you want cheering up or are not in the mood for a good cry….do read it though if you want to get totally immersed in someone else’s life and to be reminded your own really isn’t that bad. The various tragedies that befall Jane Howard drive her repeatedly to the edge and this book’s power lies primarily in its charting of how she responds. She is a tough and uncompromising character who inspires great loyalty and respect. Unfortunately a handful of the significant people in her life are selfish and dysfunctional though, leaving Jane to suffer the painful consequences. Douglas Kennedy also wrote THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, which became a film starring Will Smith, and this too feels like it has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbusting tear jerker. At times I did question just how many more awful things would happen to Jane but I guess many people’s lives are full of this kind of tragedy and the plot never felt too unbelievable because the characters and events were deftly created. All in all LEAVING THIS WORLD gripped me and ultimately it’s pretty uplifting too.
I loved CHOCOLAT and all the elements that I loved it are replicated here: the gripping story, the magic, the credible characters and the mystery. We meet Vianne several years after she fled Lansquenet, during which time she has had another child and set up another chocolate shop. This one couldn’t be more different though, as Vianne is hiding in Paris from her past, hiding from the gifts with which she and her daughters are blessed and hiding from the Kindly Ones that pursue those who are different in any way. The arrival of the flamboyant red shoe wearing Zozie, who steals people’s identities, changes everything though and the two women embark on a struggle to own the past and the future. Roux makes a welcome reappearance too and I cannot help but picture him as Jonny Depp, who played him in the film of CHOCOLAT, rather than the freckled red head Harris has created. All in all this is gorgeous – spicy, rich and bitter sweet, just like the hot chocolate Vianne makes for her customers.
This is a really great book with a really rubbish ending. The story is fast paced and travels from a remote Scottish village, where teenager Mira has grown up, to the distant city she heads for in an attempt to make sense of many unanswered questions about her childhood. It’s a journey triggered by the brief appearance of an unknown woman who is shot by pursuers and leaves behind nothing but a slip of crumpled paper bearing Mira’s name and the names of a handful of others. Set in a future where the climate has changed irrevocably and sea levels are still rising, the rich and powerful have protected their own interests and everyone else is struggling to get by. As Mira uncovers secrets and attempts to make sense of the events that have shaped her life so far, her humanity and compassion shine through. They are just some of the qualities that make her of such interest to the powers that be and ultimately cause their downfall. The novel poses some interesting questions about nature vs nurture, as well as about how society might evolve in a world in which resources are scarce – it’s a thriller but much more besides. So the disappointment I felt at turning the last page was even deeper than it might otherwise have been – loose ends left untied, no clear conclusions and a rush of events that are very unsatisfying in their abruptness. I felt Mira deserved better and that, as a reader, I did too.
POSTSCRIPT – looking for an image of the book I have found out that in fact there is a sequel so, for now, I take back my criticism of the novel’s ending…..
When I was on St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall I read about the St Aubyn family living there and the name rang a bell. A bit of googling revealed it was because of this book, which I have to admit didn’t make much of an impression on me at the first time of reading. I am not sure why though, because it’s wonderful. Sharp, funny, touching and beautifully written, MOTHER’S MILK explores family relationships through the eyes of the Melroses – Patrick, Mary and their first born son, Robert. Patrick takes centre stage, battling with Robert and his younger brother, Thomas, for Mary’s attention, as well as with an elderly mother determined to give the family home to a new age charlatan. Turning to adultery and then alcohol to drown his sorrows, Patrick is full of self-pity and self loathing. He identifies with an inaction superhero called Whateverman, a hero of resignation. Patrick justifies an affair on the grounds of doing his wife, Mary, a favour – generously helping assuage any feelings of guilt about being unable to meet her husband’s needs whilst she is busy rearing their children. Mary is a virtual saint. A paragon of patience, common sense and empathy with her sons, albeit to the exclusion of very much else. Both adults have always felt neglected by their own parents and this has shaped their lives and choices ever since. As each extended generation of Melroses continues to exert a powerful influence over both those previous and the ones that follow, there is a growing sense that the tangled familial web of hurt and blame may destroy those caught up in if they don’t make a conscious decision to set themselves free.
My favourite line of the book comes as Patrick’s mother struggles to speak, in the face of losing the ability to do so: “A carefully threaded thought unstrung itself and scattered across the floor.” It’s typical of St Aubyn’s prose. I also love the sections written from Robert’s perspective in particular, including the way he responds to his new brother, comparing his own self-awareness with the younger child just doing things. In one scene Robert accidentally admits to wanting some breast milk from his mother, prompting laughter from the adults. He then ponders how nice it would be to curl up “in the hub of his senses….before he was bombarded by adult propaganda and measured his experience against it.” This desire fades as he grows older though, as does the connection with Mary, and Robert too forgets what it was like before actions had meaning, before they became part of a messy past and future.
A book about family that savagely destroys the very notion, MOTHER’S MILK is nonetheless full of pleasure and I am glad my holiday in Cornwall allowed me to rediscover this writer.