We know that the sirens of Greek myth, those beautiful winged women, lured sailors to ruin with the witchcraft of their song. A lesser-known fact is that, according to some post-Homeric authors, they were very vulnerable to their audiences. If they couldn’t enchant the passers-by, they would throw themselves into the ocean. One might wonder if the seafarers were drawn to an unconscious sense of obligation as much as they were to the ethereal music. A siren’s survival rested on her ability to make people fall in love with her. When she succeeded, her targets may have sensed that it was their desire to keep her alive.
The sirens were among the first femme fatales, and they still speak of the dangerous ways charisma can ignite with need. A typical siren story presents a character whose magnetism leads people to ruin. But the more interesting, contemporary spin on the trope — often involving relationships that are intense but not romantic, such as those between friends or between a parent and her child — opens up the possibility of a clear-eyed sacrifice, an act of devotion. Perhaps the “ordinary” character doesn’t want to own the siren so much as to save her: to offer the necessary adoration, no matter the cost. In literature – I am thinking here of Alison Bechdel’s ‘Are You My Mother?’, parts of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet – such a desire can seem both uplifting and suspicious. Is it the voice so compelling that a reader wants to ask the narrator, or your power over it?
These tensions boil under the surface of ‘The Book of Mother’, a beautiful and disturbing debut by Violaine Huisman, translated from the French by Leslie Camhi. (The book is subtitled ‘a novel’, but Huisman, who has written a richly imagined family history, makes a well-known claim: ‘the truth of a life is the fiction that supports it.’) Catherine, Huisman’s mother, plays the siren . She is what you would expect: ‘one of the most beautiful women who ever walked the earth’, rude, impossible, passionate. Maman, as her daughters call her, is a former ballerina and chronic self-performer. She drives fast, smokes with abandon, loves freely and savagely. Her tirades inevitably end with a version of “fuck off,” and she cooks with her fingers and “tosses noodle salads with both hands.”
But there’s another Maman, whose eccentricities are less endearing. This mother often faints from drugs and alcohol, causing her children to become familiar with members of the local fire department. This Maman attacks a police officer; drags her daughter through the apartment by her hair; and despises the “whining of floppy snots,” whose wounds she disinfects with ninety percent alcohol. This Maman is (probably) committing arson. When her husband cheats on her, she uses a kitchen knife to slaughter the family dog and tells her despondent daughter that the slut grandma drowned him in the Seine.
Maman suffers from manic depression. Diagnosed in 1989, when Huisman was ten, the author still associates her mother’s disappearance – Catherine was in hospital for months – with images of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I was transfixed”, Huisman writes, “riveted to our television set, in which – beyond the brilliance of the screen, among the ruins, the rubble, the rubble – I discerned traces of my mother: her disfigured face, her scattered parts of the body, her ashes.” This register is extreme, but befits the content of the novel.Maman “was outrageous in everything,” Huisman writes, and the novel contains flashes of her passion – torrents of kisses, improvised dance recitals – as well as a surprising amount of blood. At one point, Catherine’s biological father, who is also her rapist, performs an abortion on his daughter, his rough ministry unleashing “a geyser of blood.”) The book’s genre swings, like a siren, between horror and transcendent romance. When Maman tucks Violaine in at night, “there’s a faint smell of death” on her lips.
The tumult of Huisman’s childhood is reflected in the chaotic experience of reading her book. Maman’s voice ‘was so much more beautiful in its outrage’, writes Huisman, bending her own style to her breakneck rhythms. (The extravagance of the work’s clauses makes it hard to quote – but consider a passage where Mom and Dad argue: “They pulled out each other’s hair, they threatened to tear each other’s eyes out, he warned that he was about to die of a heart attack, she threatened to end it once and for all, and then he would come out with the clincher, which might have seemed convincing, had we not heard it so many times before: you are a living hell!”) For the first third of the book, Huisman jumps back and forth in time, reminiscing about conversations with relatives and her quest – like a quiet, dutiful child – to draw some sort of line between herself. and her mother. (The crumbling wall turns out to be a fitting motif here.) Keeping Catherine’s array of affairs in mind, Huisman is hesitant to call her own lovers men: “not out of ambivalence as to my sexual orientation – i like rough skin, strong smells, being tailored, dealing with bodies that take up more space than mine. . . but because men belonged to Maman.”
The section’s most notable quality is the way it portrays, through form, a power struggle between Catherine, the subject, and Violaine, the narrator. Violaine often speaks in the first person, but occasionally slips into a rather circumstantial discourse from Catherine’s perspective. These monologues are then interrupted by glosses from Violaine, who tries to regain control. Here, for example, the two women uncomfortably work together on a description of Catherine’s time in the mental hospital: “She told us over and over again about the barbaric treatments she was subjected to” (Violaine). “She lay low. She secretly traded with other patients to make phone calls because she didn’t have a cent, not even to buy herself some cigarettes, and there was no one, no one, to help her!” (Catherine). “She called all her most trusted friends in Paris…all that is, the two or three whom she had not alienated or indignantly — in an effort to at least be transferred” (Violaine and Catherine, with the barb thrown from the first to the last like a wrench in the gears).
The coverage here isn’t subtle, but it’s extremely effective. The book demonstrates and executes both a relationship of monstrous love and zero sum logic. At times, Violaine seems eager to pass the word, as she lovingly wanders off Catherine’s cries, “People are idiots!” “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” “Oh, for God’s sake, what a fucking piece of shit!” But the point is not to mock, however funny the novel may be. A reader understands that Violaine is self-effacing as an act of concern for Maman. Channeling her mother brings joy and heroic purpose to the narrator. As Violaine explains, she and her sister were “raised without limits, we were forced to redefine the realm of the possible, overcome all barriers and nurture within ourselves the fantastic power to keep Maman alive.”
In the second part of the book, that power is exercised to the extreme. Violaine more or less gives her story to Catherine and tells her mother’s story, from start to finish, in a continuous close third person. The results of this self-deletion are compelling. There are detailed portraits of Catherine’s mother, father, stepfather and grandparents; from her first, second and third husbands; and most of her in-laws. Themes repeat themselves: physical abuse, rape, neglect. But stability remains elusive. The burgeoning characters behave unpredictably, as if being reborn in every scene—not unlike Catherine herself, who swings wildly between elation and despair. If the structure of the first part of the book makes it difficult to keep track of who is who, the deluge of personalities – all malleable – in the next part achieve a similar effect. This second stab in Catherine’s story, striving diligently for brilliance and form, only heightens the sense of identity as boundless, messy, inclusive.
A highlight is Catherine’s first meeting with the man who will become Violaine’s father. By this point, Catherine has survived meningitis, an icy resigned mother and a suicide attempt, and has secured the stability of the working class by opening her own dance studio and marrying a good-hearted real estate agent. But Antoine, an obscenely wealthy libertine, pops in and invites Catherine on a date at a Venetian hotel. Partly enchanted by the man’s dark green Jaguar, she accepts, and in the setting that follows, a wage earner observes the caviar class: “[Catherine] hears names she doesn’t recognize, she understands [Antoine] has a lot of worries, but she doesn’t know what kind, it seems he has all kinds of problems, money problems, work problems, heart problems, health problems, mental health problems, clearly, a seemingly infinite number of problems.” Catherine sees through her new suitor but ignores him not, and later falls ecstatically in love with him.It’s a testament to Huisman’s own poise as an author—or perhaps the low bar set by the rest of the cast—that one closes “The Book of Mother” with a soft spot for Antoine .
I emphasize this interlude partly because it distills something into the work as a whole. One develops a soft spot for many of Huisman’s characters, despite their atrocious and sometimes criminal behavior. Their larger-than-life swagger is the first lure. Their human weakness is the second. And yet there is, there must be a certain amount of daylight between nurturing someone and feeling the need to save that person. When the middle part of the book ends, Huisman resumes the narration as himself for a short coda, and we don’t hear from Catherine again directly. Without spoiling too much, Maman’s song stops when it stops working—that is, when it can no longer drive others to self-destruct. What remains is Huisman’s own novel, a labor of love, which views the primal conflict with a tender psychological acuity. It is as if Huisman fought with her mother, surrendered to her and eventually moved on. The book is dedicated to Huisman’s sister.
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