Biff Ward, In my mother’s hands (Review)

Biff Ward In my mother's hands

Courtesy Allen & Unwin

“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.

awwchallenge2015Biff Ward
In my mother’s hands
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743319116

30 thoughts on “Biff Ward, In my mother’s hands (Review)

  1. This sounds like a beautiful memoir. And how wonderful the author was at your book group discussion. What was that like? Will you be writing about it?

    • Thanks Stefanie, it is beautiful. This is the sixth time we’ve had an author present in our 27 years … Though I must say all of these have occurred in the last 15 years. This is the first time for a non- fiction work.

      It was wonderful. Biff was relaxed, and very open as other people’s stories came out. I was thinking about writing it up, though I’m not sure whether I took enough notes and remember enough besides my own responses to the book to make a post BUT I will think about it over the next day or two.

  2. I was really excited to read the memoir and am so glad (if not surprised) that you and your group were as bowled over by it as I was. You had Biff at your meeting whereas Biff has been a significant part of my life and yet, though I knew at least part of the story, it’s what she has made of it that’s important. It’s a beautiful book, the culmination of many years of struggle to fathom her experience of her mother at a time when mental illness was little understood and horribly stigmatised. Thanks, WG, for the perceptive and enthusiastic review.

    • Thanks Sara. I’m not surprised, I guess, that you know her given your ages and her political, etc, background. As you say, it’s what she made of it that is so impressive. As you read it you are horrorstruck at what it must have been like living like that … Year in year out. Perhaps I need to write another post because I realise I didn’t say that! And yet somehow she manages to convey it all without “woe is me” tone. Part of that must have been because despite her father’s failings in some respects, he was also loving, and kept that family together long after many men wouldn’t have. Biff was a delight to have present.

  3. I read this memoir, and it is so sad. As you say, it is not judgemental memoir about any member of the Ward family. At first I thought Biff was very critical of her mother, but as she matured she became more understanding of her mother and the illness. I checked out the requirements for a woman writer to be considered for the Stella Prize, and I am surprised that Biff Ward’s memoir wasn’t on the list. It certainly meets the requirements, and it is a pity that it is not to be considered for the prize. On 22 April, I will be at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. The discussion will be about the Stella winner and the other authors.

    • How exciting Meg to be able to attend that session at the Wheeler Centre. Interestingly, I didn’t feel she was tough on her mother – though I felt very sad about it – because I think she was able to show it from the perspective of the child who didn’t understand what was going on and who was struggling with not having a “mother” who was there for her in the important ways. I felt quite differently with Jill Ker Conway’s Road from Coorain. Different situations and mothers, but I felt she was harsh and not understanding of her mother – I didn’t see any real give.

  4. This sounds like an amazing book. I was not familiar with it. Very moving. How much fun it would be to have the author at the book club. Enjoyed this review. Have a lovely Easter too by the way.

    • Thanks Pam … I’m really glad then that I brought it to your attention. It should be better known, for multiple reasons. It was fantastic having the author here.

      And back at you for Easter. Our Taswegians arrived last night so we are looking forward to a good family time. BTW I read your tribute to your friend yesterday while I was waiting at the airport, in fact. Will pop over to comment.

  5. A great review, WG! I’m full of admiration for Biff and for the memoir. Biff is in my writing group, so I’ve seen closely the gradual development of the manuscript, and all the hard work and revision. I think she manages to be honest, to evoke her childhood self truly, and yet to bring to it her adult self that has done enough work to move beyond accusation, acknowledging human frailty. And as you say so well, it’s beautifully written. It’s a great shame that the book hasn’t been more widely recognised, so I’m delighted that you’re giving it some airing!

    • Thanks Robyn, I rather guessed from something she said that you might both be in a writing group together. Glad you liked the review — I always worry that I should talk more about the story but I never seem to want to. I like to explore other things, and then I worry that I haven’t shown that I really did like the story too!

      I agree that it deserves more air. So hard to do it seems.

  6. Hi Sue, yes I knew that it had been longlisted. But, what caught my attention when I read about the six finalists: “These six extraordinary books explore themes of identity, family, displacement and belonging, with distinctly Australian resonances.” I consider Biff Ward’s memoir certainly meets those themes, more than the ones I have read. I haven’t read all the six books, still to read Heat and Light and The Invisible History of the Human Race. Though I do understand how difficult it must be for the judges to make their selection. My money is now on The Golden Age.

    • Ah, I understand Meg. When you said “eligibility” I was thinking formal criteria and thought you’d missed that, but it didn’t make sense to me that you would have! I guess when it gets to the shortlist it’s all about subjectivity isn’t it? Biff Ward would love to know that you’d have her up there in the shortlist. I haven’t read as many of them as you have but I agree her book meets that description.

  7. Fantastic review, Sue – I’ve just downloaded it from the library to read when my work is done tomorrow!

  8. I’m glad you focused on “Literary”. Stories fill in the time, but the art is in the writing. So many books are just churned out these days with ordinary or even poor grammar, vocabulary, construction that it is a relief to read one that is well written and a rare joy to find a writer who is inventive or experimental.

    • Thanks wadholloway … I was pretty sure that here I’d be preaching to the converted! Ward’s writing is excellent. She keeps it to the point, by excellent use of well-chosen words and no cliches – and the voice she has chosen works very well. I wish I could write like that!

  9. Sue
    Thanks you so much for this marvellous review. I really appreciate its thoroughness and depth – and the use of several quotes. You have put a lot of work into it.
    When I came to your book group I had no idea that you had such skills and intentions! It was a very enjoyable evening for me. I was amazed as I read down all the responses, delighted to see my old friend Sara there and thankful to Robyn for alerting me. I am a kindy kid in the digital world, so her pointer was a wonderful surprise.
    Thanks to all for the kind and generous comments.

    • A pleasure, Biff. As you know, I thoroughly enjoyed your book, as did the rest of our bookgroup. I’m glad you enjoyed coming to our group. It’s special for us to have an author present, but it’s a little nervewracking on both sides I suspect. (I know it is on ours!)

      Anyhow, I’m glad you found the review and enjoyed the comments … I love the people who comment here!

      PS SorryI took a while to approve your comment. We had a family do here last night, and then I spent all day today at the Folk Festival, so I only got to my blog tonight.

  10. Excellent review. I can’t imagine living with a mental illness now let alone living with a mental illness years ago when they were even less understood. I’ve put this on my wish list at the library and hope to get to it some time soon.

    • Thanks Sharkell … I’m so glad this review is encouraging more people to read it. The Stella Prize judges thought it worth long-listing which tells me it should be out there being read my more people. I’d love to hear what you think when you get to it.

  11. This was a great review of what sounds to be an excellent memoir. How wonderful to have the author present at your book meeting. Your definition of literary here is closer to mine than I thought it was going to be from our last discussion. Lee Gutkind the Father of Creative Non-Fiction defines it very simply as “True stories well told.” It sounds as though Biff Ward has certainly achieved this aim. Love the cover of the book.

    • Thanks Irene … Yes, I had a feeling that something I said threw you off my literary scent! I suspected we wouldn’t be too far sparr. True stories well told is a great shorthand … And Biff Ward meets it perfectly.

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  13. I’ve just been able to read this book after you talked about it at Easter. A wonderful, wonderful book, sad – harrowing and kind to everyone (well, almost everyone) with a deep understanding of and reverence for the nuances of human experience. Thanks for telling me about it and your book group discussion about it.

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