Biff Ward, In my mother’s hands (Review)
“Profoundly moving”, “a kind book”, and “harrowing” could be blurb words for Biff Ward’s memoir, In my mother’s hands, but they’re not. They are some of the words used by members of my reading group when we discussed the book this week with – lucky us – the author in attendance.
It’s quite coincidental that I happened to be reading this book right when Annabel Smith asked me to name my favourite memoir for her Friday Faves, which resulted in my follow-up post on memoirs this Monday. However, I’m glad it happened this way, because it’s given me an excuse to continue the discussion a little more. There’s so much to say about Ward’s book, but for this post I’m going to explore just two aspects: the reading experience, and its literary qualities.
On reading In my mother’s hands
So, let’s start with the story. Biff Ward is the daughter of one of Australia’s most influential historians of the mid-twentieth century, Russel Ward. At our meeting, she told us that people expected her to write his biography, but, she said, that was never her interest. Instead, she found herself writing about her mother. In doing this, though, she did in fact write about her father – but in a memoir, not a biography, because this book is about her experience of living in a family with an increasingly delusional, paranoid mother. What that experience was like – and how she eventually unravels the full story – makes compelling reading.
But, there’s more to reading this book than the story, strong as it is. There is how Ward tells it. She evokes the times beautifully – particularly the 1950s and 1960s – showing, in particular, the devastating result of the lack of understanding or awareness of mental illness. And she does this while inhabiting the child she was at the time, that is, she manages to tell those years from her child’s eye view, interspersing this voice with her experienced adult one. Take, for example, her description of when, as a teenager, she’s home when her mother is visited by “top girl” or “the queen bee of the university wives”. Ward believed this visit showed her mother was being talked about publicly, and she felt “shame and embarrassment” as “Top Girl bustled down the hall and out the front door”. That word “bustled” perfectly captures the idea of a “busybody”. Later, though, she sees it differently:
Now I can see that the network of women, connected through the university where their husbands worked, might have cared about my mother. Or might have wanted to care but were not sure how to go about it.
Also contributing to my reading enjoyment was how seamlessly Ward incorporated her research into the story to substantiate her feelings and ideas. She quotes from letters her father wrote to his parents and sister. (How wonderful that these were kept, says this librarian-archivist!) She talks of speaking to friends and family members later about their memories. She shares her research into official records. She refers to her father’s autobiography. And so on. None of this is tedious, but is woven naturally, logically, into the narrative.
Then there’s Ward’s honesty in confronting difficult truths, and her ability and willingness to reflect on her experiences and comprehend their meaning or implications. Here she is, for example, on her response to her father’s overwhelming (and surely unreasonable) request for her to look after her mother for a year:
I didn’t know that somewhere inside me was a plan. My motivation was buried way too deep for me to connect that first touch of an erect penis with the request Dad had made of me.
You can probably guess the outcome.
It would be easy to read this book with anger – to be angry particularly with Russel Ward for his failings – but that would, I think, miss the point. Ward is not angry – and indeed her father did a lot right too. Her tone is more one of sadness, than of anger. She appreciates the culture of the times and she knows that people are flawed. I loved this – the generosity with which she relates what was clearly a traumatic upbringing.
What makes a memoir literary?
This might sound like a snooty question, but literary non-fiction is a recognised genre, and memoirs are making literary award lists. So, what makes one memoir stand out over another in terms of literary qualities? Critic Barbara Lounsberry captures my perspective: “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.” (from Wikipedia)
So, narrative form, structure and “polished” language. While I wouldn’t call In my mother’s hands particularly innovative or challenging in terms of style and technique, I would call it skilled and polished. Ward’s use of her child’s voice interspersed with her more reflective adult one effectively draws the reader in. Her use of foreshadowing – such as “I missed seeing that I had been provided with a rehearsal of what was to come” and “It’s hard, looking back, to pick the precise moment when a turning point arrives, when your life is about to change” – picks up on a structural device common in fiction. (It also neatly demonstrates the memoirist’s ability to think back).
The jewel in the crown, though, is her language. Ward’s writing is generally direct and to the point, but she has a great eye for metaphor and produces some gorgeous images that can encompass multiple ideas. I loved this description of her mother’s increasing (often self-imposed) alienation within the family:
Even when there weren’t visitors, we hardly spoke to her. As her delusions grew, as she had almost no everyday conversation, we cut off from her, twig by twig. Our family tree grew its gnarled limbs around us and through us, in the imperceptible way trees do, so that we didn’t notice how weirdly shaped we all were.
This obviously distorts the traditional family tree motif but also, I think, subtly suggests the tree of (non) life?
And then there’s the title itself. In my mother’s hands references so many ideas – the fact that children are (rather defencelessly) in their parents’ hands; the idea that as a nurse her mother had had caring, nurturing hands; her mother’s grotesque habit of gouging and hurting her hands (invoking Lady Macbeth, and the mystery at the heart of the book); and her mother’s terrifying attempt to strangle Ward in her bed when she was 12 years old. Literal, symbolic, metaphoric. They’re all there in those four words.
The chapter titles are similarly evocative, usually brief and apt, such as Brittle, Knife, The Cobweb, Running. Language is, in fact, a significant issue in the book because in those awful days when mental illness was not understood, Ward, her father and younger brother had no language to explain to each other, let alone to outsiders, what they were experiencing. Sometimes Ward would lie, she said, because “when there are not adequate words, fiction will suffice”; other times they would use “shorthand” to obscure the reality.
I could write more about the language in this book, because I found it perfectly tuned to the story and to conveying the feelings within, but I’ll leave it here.
At the end of our meeting, I mentioned to Ward her longlisting for the Stella Prize. She smiled a little wryly, and said, in relation to missing out on the shortlist, that she felt in good company being “rejected with Helen Garner and Sonya Hartnett”! She sure is – and on the basis of this book, I’d say she well deserves being mentioned in the same breath as those writers.