The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from the French by Leslie Camhi (International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist)

This is the third novel from the International Booker Prize long list, out of the five I’ve read so far, which has a mother and daughter relationship at its core. (More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, and Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro, are the other two.)

We were used to Maman’s sporty driving habits. She was constantly running late, and she sometimes climbed onto the sidewalks when the roads were backed up, a time-tested method for avoiding traffic jams. Cigarette dangling from her left hand, she’d scream at pedestrians: Get out of my way! We’re late! … It was no surprise that Maman drove like a madwoman, the rules of the road were purely theoretical to her, and pointlessly annoying, although she would, if she saw a truck bearing down on us as we swerved into the wrong lane, retreat: Oh well, he’s rather big, that one!

(p. 2-3)

While it begins rather humorously, The Book Of Mother quickly reveals a painful side. This is what it was like living with a manic- depressive person, myself. They are the life of the party until they aren’t. It is up to the steadfast family members who dwell in the shadows to pick up the pieces and fit them back together. In this case, it is Maman’s daughters, Elsa and Violaine.

Not once did this novel become a long whine into “poor me.” It kept me riveted throughout, to the encroyable antics of Maman, Catherine, and the enormous compassion and strength that her daughters displayed. I could feel the profound love the three had for each other, flawed as the relationship may have been.

Violaine’s book is written in first person; it is autofiction, a combination of autobiography and fiction, and therefore deeply personal as well as engaging. Yet, isn’t it always autofiction when we tell our life stories? Which of us is able to relate our past experiences with anything other than our own perspective? And surely, mine is not objective.

The Book of Mother made me think of my own mother. Not because she is even vaguely as volatile as Catherine was, but because she is a free spirit deeply loved by me.

The last page of the book has a poem which Violaine wrote to her mother when she was in school. Violaine finds it in one of her mother’s desk drawers, folded in half, which she can hardly read through eyes blurred with tears:

Maman, Maman,

You who love me so

Why, without telling me, would you go?

My deepest desire is to express to you

How deeply I love you!

(p. 211)

That is exactly what Violaine Huisman does in this magnificent book. I found it deeply moving and wonderful, far more than I can express in this silly post.