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Two New Novels Explore the Murky Psychology of Mothers and Daughters

Ellen Kelly By Ellen Kelly Published on September 30, 2016
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When the 2016 Man Booker Prize longlist was announced in July I was filled with a ticklish delight. There on my very own crammed, disintegrating bookshelves lay two of the books, side by side, red spines hugging. What’s more I had already read them both. Devoured them, actually. So I knew exactly why they had made the list. I had put them together in a rare moment of organisation for two reasons. Firstly, because they were my favourite books so far this year. Secondly, because of their similarities. Both Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk delve into the murky contested psychological terrain of the mother/daughter relationship. Not teenage daughters fighting to find their way but adult daughters and their adult mothers, fighting to save themselves from the weight of maternal non-recognition or, more specifically in Levy’s book, of repressed identity when the relationship is too enmeshed. I find this a fascinating area to read and indeed write about. My first successful short story, which was broadcast on RTE radio 1, was in this area. There seems to be quite an appetite for it.

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The books are stylistically very different but the thematic similarities do stack up. In Strout’s the daughter is being treated in hospital for some unnamed, unidentified and unidentifiable ailment. She has been there for a long time – nine weeks by the end of it – and has physical examinations during which the doctor gives nothing away. The reader is left wondering if there is, indeed, anything physically wrong with her. Her estranged mother visits her, staying for a few days, and is a figure at the foot of the bed, there and not there, listening but not hearing, choosing not to hear. She offers up irrelevancies about old neighbours while avoiding the important stuff – she does not mention the father nor does she ask about the daughter’s husband. The daughter tries to tell her about herself, that she is a published writer now: ‘I wanted my mother to ask about my life…Stupidly – it was just stupidity – I blurted out “Mom, I got two stories published”. She looked at me quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones” I said, “in tiny magazines”. Still she said nothing’. This is the heart of the book, and the emotional punch of it stays with me. Anyone who has trodden the uncertain path of becoming a writer knows how thrilling and significant it is to get a story published. This adult daughter desperately wants to share this with her mother, to show her who she is becoming, who she has become. But when the mother fails to show even a flicker of interest, the daughter berates herself and belittles her achievement, making it ‘tiny’ and ‘dumb’ which is perhaps how she feels now.

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In Levy’s it is the mother who has some strange, unidentifiable illness, reducing her to a wheelchair. Her half Greek daughter, 25, travels with her to a special clinic in Spain to get to the bottom of it. To find a cure with the help of a doctor, who could be a genius or a quack. It is at some cost financially – a remortgaged flat – but most importantly to the daughter’s permission to progress in life. She leaves her academic writings – she’s an anthropologist undertaking a PhD – on her symbolically broken screened laptop. Her identity is utterly entwined with that of her mother’s. She limps when her mother does, ‘my legs are her legs’.

Both books employ the body with mysterious symptoms in a psychological, or even hypochondriacal way to draw people close, mother and daughter. Both are books of the interior, existentialist, as the daughters negotiate their stuck lives with the weight of their mothers and childhoods on their backs. We learn little about their exteriors, their physicality. Instead we go with them on their inner journey as they grapple with submerged identities fighting for breath. In Hot Milk the daughter realizes she has been waiting on and waiting for her mother all her life: ‘Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me’.

However it is the humor, color, symbolism and poetic density of Hot Milk which makes it winner for me. The judges for the Man Booker prize short list might just agree as it has been recently selected as one of the golden six. There are real laugh out loud moments, even if the subject matter is dark. The Greek medusa myth peppers the text as poisonous jellyfish, coincidentally called medusas in Spanish, float menacingly nearby. There’s a parallel fluidity and floatiness to the daughter as she experiments convincingly with her desires and sexuality. The conflicted catharsis at the end of Hot Milk will linger with the reader long after the close of the book. I will be keeping my fingers crossed for Levy to claim the prize in late October.

    Ellen holds a PhD in the Sociology of Humour. She is passionate about creative writing and has had her short stories published and broadcast as competition winners. She writes a humorous blog ... Show More