Monday, March 29, 2021

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 


“THE MIRROR BOOK” by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage imprint / Penguin-Random House $NZ38)


            It’s a quiet night in your home, but next door the neighbours are quarrelling. Voices are raised. There is some shouting. It sounds as if something has just fallen over. Will you wait for the noise of breaking glass before you call the police? Or will you wait until you hear a gunshot? But then is it any of your business anyway? Why should you get mixed up in it? You can’t do anything to help. The main thing you feel is helplessness and a kind of irrational embarrassment.

            This is a very crude conceit, but it more-or-less conveys how I feel after reading Charlotte Grimshaw’s confessional memoir The Mirror Book. This is a book about another family’s quarrels and differences, sometimes quite intense. Do we learn from it? Do we learn something important about human nature? Or are we just onlookers to somebody else’s crises?

            Charlotte Grimshaw is the daughter of novelist, poet, critic and former academic C.K. (Karl) Stead and his wife Kay Stead. Given that she is an accomplished and well-known novelist and commentator in her own right, I’m sure she would hate being identified this way, but her daughter-ship is essential to this memoir.

            At a crisis point in her life, Grimshaw felt the need to examine her upbringing and to reassess how she had become the person she was. Her husband Paul Grimshaw was having an affair and had walked out on her and their three children. She hoped the break wasn’t permanent and their marriage could be saved. In her unhappiness she started thinking about how it was that, as a considerate mother and wife, she found herself relating better to men than to women. Why did she always feel that things had not been explained truthfully to her when she was younger? What was it that made it difficult for her to relate to women and why did she have so few women friends? She first, and significantly, sought the help of a male psychotherapist, but he directed her on to a woman psychotherapist who, after some initial hesitation, helped her to sort out what was making her feel so lost.

            Almost inevitably, it involved her parents. “I got preoccupied with the idea of a family living according to a repressive narrative that denies individuals their own truth”, she says (p.21) The “repressive narrative” was imposed by her parents. She tells us a number of times that when interviewers asked her what her childhood was like, she would say “Wonderful childhood – a house full of books”. But this wasn’t true. As Grimshaw presents it in The Mirror Book, both Karl and Kay never fully faced up to the truth of their relationship and the impact it had upon their children, especially Charlotte and her elder brother Oliver. (Her younger sister Margaret plays little part in this memoir.)

            When they were younger, she says, their parents failed to give them the type of oversight that parents should give. They were fed and housed and educated well. There was no real physical mistreatement. Like other fathers of his vintage, Karl did smack his children when they misbehaved and he was also capable of  explosive rage” (see pp.110-112). But the real problems were an emotional distance and a failure to understand how the children felt about things. In detail Charlotte cites a memory – already recalled in two of her fictions – of the young, unsupervised, Stead children negotiating a dangerous track in the Waitakeres, where they came close to either falling over a cliff or drowning. Their parents weren’t with them and hadn’t noticed where they’d gone. She gives other examples of their negligence, including the way she was shuffled off to unpleasant holidays with a hippie-ish aunt whose daughter took her on potentially dangerous rambles.

            For a variety of reasons, things got worse when she was a young teenager. Young Charlotte bonded more with Karl than with Kay, because father and daughter were both story-tellers who shared jokes. Karl had many affairs with other women (p.112). Already galled by this, Kay began to see Charlotte as another barrier between herself and her husband. “All the language and behaviour changed; they stopped behaving like parents. He liked the idea I could write, and she, already stung, hurt and excluded by the disloyalty of his infidelities, grew so hostile towards me that daily life turned toxic.” (p.119) Kay gave Charlotte long periods of the “silent treatment”, refusing to speak to her and causing her to find it dificult to speak herself. When she was 13, she was sexually assaulted, but her mother apparently treated the matter as a joke.

            Her parents didn’t mind in the least if Charlotte stayed out far into the night and roamed freely around central Auckland. This meant a young girl “hanging out with drag queens, bouncers, DJs, street kids and prostitutes… many of whom were dully engaged in the business of self-destruction” (p.163) It also meant being involved in juvenile delinquency such as “petty crime, vandalism, setting fires and underage drinking” which led to numerous court appearances (p.162) As an adult, she wonders why her parents didn’t set stricter boundaries. They might have seen themselves as liberal, broad-minded people who weren’t going to restrain or inhibit their growing children; but to (wife and mother) Charlotte, this now appears to be a failure to observe a duty of care.

            As for her mother Kay, Charlotte basically sees her as the cause of her inability to relate to women. Kay (and please remember in all this that I am reporting Charlotte’s account) seemed to have a big chip on her shoulder. She was a librarian who was never  promoted to higher positions she could have filled, because she didn’t have a university degree. (Her daughter sometimes told her she should get one.) Ironically for a very literate woman and the wife of a professor, Kay often ridiculed higher education. She encouraged her daughter to see all her schoolteachers as oppressive, conformist fools against whom she should rebel… which, in an attempt to please her mother, the schoolgirl Charlotte did loudly and incorrigibly, risking expulsion.

            Even worse, she accuses her mother of not being true to herself and always playing a part for public consumption. At dinner parties and social gatherings Kay was a charming and witty woman, completely supportive of her husband and totally unfazed by his many affairs. But privately, says Charlotte, Kay raged and wept every time she learnt of another of Karl’s infidelities. She says that on one occasion, Kay phoned her to report that “she’d just spent three hours breaking into the padlocked trunk in Karl’s office. When she’d finally smashed the lock open with a hammer, she’d found letters that were evidence of love affairs she hadn’t known about.” (p.150)

            But Kay lied systematically both to herself and to her daughter. When Charlotte was upset about her own husband’s infidelity, Kay brushed it off as a triviality and “her new line was that she’d been cool with Karl’s infidelity all along… She was scornful of my ‘sensitivities’ about being cheated on (and temporarily left). She had ‘never’ suffered trauma and depression, been overwhelmed by Karl’s disengaged behaviour while she was struggling with young children, never been distraught over his continued lying…. She and I had not discussed the problem at length, over years. None of my memories were valid. Our shared experience, my memory of it was not real.” (pp.150-151) It is on this matter that Charlotte gets into talking about “gaslighting’ and being told to believe things she knew were not true. Her memories of her parents’ loud quarrels and her mother’s tears and anguish were dismissed as fantasies or works of fiction.

            It is interesting that Karl and Kay were both scornful of second-wave feminism and the “Me Too” movement (pp.120-121), both of which challenged the idea that men had a right to chase and seduce women as they pleased. They were also scathing about the psychiatry to which Charlotte had turned, which might lead people to make unnecessary discoveries about themselves. Better to keep things under wraps.

            A number of times (see pp.33 and 83), Charlotte quotes her father’s words in his second volume of autobiography You Have a Lot to Lose, where he asserted “One wanted to control the world and make it more orderly and beautiful than it could ever be, so one created a world of one’s own, and controlled that.” While this might be a natural impulse for a novelist, whose business is, after all, to create things and people that do not exist, Charlotte suggests that it really shows the mindset of somebody who did not wish to face up to realities, especially domestic ones. She accuses him of idealising (again in You Have a Lot to Lose) what the Stead siblings experienced (pp196-197) noting “With autobiography, there must be a temptation to airbrush, to smooth over rough edges, to make yourself the good guy and right in every argument. The less able you were to tolerate the idea you’ve been a jerk, made mistakes, fucked up or failed, the less honest your account will be.” (p.198)

            Yet along with all the things that I have reported accurately, Charlotte does have many mitigating things to say about her parents. The book opens with a statement of her continuing love for her parents, her closeness to them, and the fact that all families have their quarrels. She spends most of a page (p.304) remembering all the good things about her father – his humour, the memories he shared of his own childhood and the many happy times the family had together. She also cites many of his novels and stories, often to criticise his assumptions, but also showing real admiration for his work. She thinks fondly of her parents as they now are, an old (in their late 80s) and mutually supportive couple. Perhaps most important, she is also aware of the unpleasant childhood her mother had, warping her formation. (“Man hands on misery to man. / It widens like the coastal shelf ” etc.). In a long passage (pp.259-267) she compares both herself and her mother to Sylvia Plath, who was belittled by an unloving mother and who loved her father but found him an overwhelming presence to the point of killing him symbolically in poetry (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” etc.).

            This exploration of a family is the heart of The Mirror Book, but it is not all the memoir records. Charlotte  - always referencing the ongoing influence of her parents – discusses her life as a young adult, after she’d left home but before she met her husband. There was the trauma of witnessing, at close quarters, the death of a male friend (wilfully killed by drivers of a car who drove off at speed and were never tracked down). There were some years of living with an abusive partner who was considerably older than she was. She lived for a while in the unnerving environment of an apartment at the top of an abandoned high-rise building in central Auckland.

Fearful of making this review even longer and more laborious than it already is, I have not examined the way Charlotte Grimshaw connects the relevant parts of her life to the novels she was writing, especially Mazarine, which reflected mother-daughter relationships and allowed a woman to come to terms with herself and find healing in the company of other women. I hate to use a cliché, but this memoir is in large part a journey towards the healing of the author’s emotional trauma, built on the idea that life improves if you are allowed tell the truth about yourself and others, and if you allow space for feelings as well as ratiocination.

As a reader, however, I do come back to that feeling of helplessness and a kind of irrational embarrassment which I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review. I do not for one moment question Charlotte Grimshaw’s truthfulness. (After all, on what grounds could  I, or any other readers, challenge her on what she says about her private life?) But we, as readers, are essentially being pushed into an intimate family argument. In this book Charlotte Grimshaw shakes off the carapace of irony that is found in so many of her fictions. Here her language is passionate, engaged, daring to use verbal clichés, be heart-on-sleeve and (it must be added) sometimes repetitive. She often makes the valid point that women who express strong feelings are accused by men of being “hysterical”. I would not make that accusation, but I do note that this is a wrenching and rather exhausting book to read.

Was it written in haste? The Mirror Book appears only nine months after the release of her father’s second volume of autobiography, with which she sometimes takes issue, and even fewer months since a radio interview she cites, when Kim Hill quizzed Karl Stead. Is it deliberate riposte, written in the spirit of hitting back at what she sees as a false narrative? Do we have in The Mirror Book just a game of “he-said / she-said” to the tune of Larkin’s “they fuck you up, your mum and dad”? I think not, but quite apart from Karl Stead already having had his say, I do wonder how Charlotte’s two siblings might have interpreted some of the family things she remembers.

At this point I could consider the hell of living your life with the aim of turning it into fiction. Do all your experiences, all your relationships with other people, become potential “copy”, so that you do not really interact with others? You may be always watching to see how you can put other people into words. Your relationships become a form of exploitation. Is this something that afflicts all novelists? I don't know.

I hope that Charlotte Grimshaw has found the writing of The Mirror Book to be cathartic and that her life is now less troubled by untruths. But even in saying this, I am butting in on somebody else’s life.


For Your Information: Elsewhere on this blog, you will find a review of Karl Stead’s You Have a Lot to Lose. You will also find reviews of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, Starlight Peninsula and Mazarine. I know she took exception to my review of Soon, which I found to be condescending in parts, but I don’t think she could object to the reviews of the other two novels, which I found more humane and forgiving.


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