Memoirs are tricky things. There are readers who love them, readers who hate them, and readers like wishy-washy me who sit in the middle. I sit in the middle because, for a start, I don’t like to say “never” when it comes to reading. I sit in the middle because I couldn’t cope with a steady diet of memoirs, particularly those how-I-got-over-my-[whatever trauma or challenge it was], which is certainly not to say that I don’t admire those memoirists or don’t enjoy some of their fare. And, I sit in the middle because I don’t like formula, because I like books that try to tackle their subject or their form a little differently. So, the memoirs I mostly read are those which play with form or whose subject matter offers something different. Ros Collins’ memoir, Rosa: Memories with licence, does both of these.
First, the subject-matter. Rosa deals with, as the book description says, “Anglo-Australian Jews [who are] often overlooked in fiction and memoir.” Having known many Anglo-Australian Jews through my life, I was interested to read Collins’ discussion of her family’s life, as a contrast to those more directly Holocaust-influenced lives of European Jews we’ve all read about. It’s not easy being Jewish, I believe, regardless of personal or family history, so I was interested to read this story.
Then there’s the form. The subtitle, “memories with licence”, suggests that this is not going to be your usual memoir. For a start, it is told third person about a person called Rosa, which is the name given to the author Ros by “two elderly men from Southern Europe” whom she met on a recent Anzac Day Eve. She goes on to say, in her Introduction, that it is this “Rosa who wanders through the following stories, sometimes fictionally, sometimes autobiographically”, though I hazard to guess it is mostly autobiographical – just told one voice removed! Near the end of the introduction, she says that:
Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.
The book has been classified on its back cover as Memoir. And that is how I have read it, as it reads true.
So, why tell it this way? Collins says she wishes “to entertain”. Her aim is not to delve into world history, cataclysmic events, or, even, dystopian futures. She wants, instead to shine a light on lives that may not be well known to many Australians, on Anglo-Australian Jewish lives. Taking a third person voice enables her to tell her story a little more objectively, to comment on what people, in particular Rosa, were, or may have been, thinking and feeling. Third person also enables her to get out of the main subject’s voice and head. It enables her to suggest what others might be thinking, such as Rabbi Szymanowicz:
Rabbi Szymanowicz stopped surreptitiously searching the room for younger people with whom he might more profitably connect, and looked at her. Seldom, if ever, had he met an elderly congregant quite like her; for an eighty-something-year-old Rosa did not come across as a sweetly gentle Miss Marple – more likely to be opinionated and argumentative.
This sort of statement could not be made in the same way in a traditional memoir. A traditional memoirist can not so directly get into the head of another character. A traditional memoirist can only suppose what another character might think (unless they are quoting documented facts from, say, letters). Taking this third person approach gives Collins more licence. She can, for example, “guess” about the relationship between her two grandmothers, two women who were not happy because they lost significant supports, when Rosa’s parents married.
All this could be disconcerting to some readers, but Collins has been honest from the start about what she is doing. Ultimately, the important thing is whether the book rings true and I believe it does. Rosa’s character – her humanity, her sense of her own flaws, her uncertainties, as well as her pride in her achievements – shines through.
Another way in which the book departs from traditional memoir is in its lack of linearity. While there is an overall movement from past to present, Rosa is not told chronologically. Instead, each chapter or “story” takes up a theme through which the story of English-born Rosa (Ros) and Australian-born Al (Ros’s husband Alan) is told. Chapter 4, “Jellied eels”, for example, explores food, Jewish culture, and Rosa’s navigation of it all. Collins explains how, as a child, Rosa had been told what she could and couldn’t eat, but not told why. Her mother expected her to “just accept the traditions” but of course this is not the way to hand down traditions, not, certainly, “to a difficult daughter – full of unnecessary questions”!
Collins also tackles, gently and without polemics, what Israel means (or, might mean) for Anglo-Australian Jews. For those of us who find Israel and the politics of the region highly problematic, it’s useful – though not necessarily convincing – to be reminded that in Israel, as Rosa quotes Golda Meir saying, “nobody has to get up in the morning and worry about what his neighbours think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”
Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.
Rosa: Memories with licence
Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2019