The Mistress's Daughter by A M Homes

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The Mistress's Daughter by A M Homes

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The earlier parts of this book are tremendously compelling: searingly honest, fearless, emotional and revealing. The latter parts stutter and falter almost as if Homes is regretting ever agreeing to have written the book. Curiously, this makes it all the more engaging, if slightly less satisfying.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1862079304

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A M Homes was put up for adoption on the day that she was born. Thirty years later, her birth-mother initiated contact through a lawyer. Homes learned that she was the daughter of a young girl and her married lover - I am the product of a sex life, not a relationship. Her mother, Ellen, turns out to be an obsessive, compulsive and needy woman. Her father, Norman, turns out to be a selfish, standoffish man who has no real intention of publicly acknowledging his new-found daughter. Homes quickly concludes that the best thing either of her biological parents could have done for her is give her up. This discovery, however, doesn't negate the hollowness, the emptiness, the neediness of being an adoptee and so she perseveres - by turns admitting Ellen, then running from her and trying - and failing - to win some intimacy from Norman.

This first section of The Mistress's Daughter, the one that deals with the interaction between Homes and her biological parents, is both startling and compelling. If anything, it compounds the sense of dislocation she feels. A visceral feeling of "not measuring up" rises from the pages and for me, suddenly, I got a real feeling for how it must be to walk on the swampy ground of adoption. No matter how much you are loved, on some basic level, no matter how irrational, you simply don't feel good enough. Homes can see right through both her biological parents, but in the end, it doesn't make a scrap of difference to that kernel of aloneness inside. Her adoptive parents are peripheral figures on the outskirts of the narrative - it's clear they're also peripheral to this basic need to belong.

It's also frighteningly honest. Apparently, it's common for adopted children and their parents to feel glimmers of sexual attraction to one another when they first meet - but I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to put my own in a memoir. Hats off to Homes.

Later on, after Ellen has died and the relationship with Norman has gone past strained and into estrangement, Homes becomes addicted to genealogical research. At this point, the writing suffers a little and the narrative stutters and falters, becomes less focussed. One gets the distinct sense that this famously reticent woman is rueing the day she ever agreed to write this book. This may spoil it for some, as the writing is so good, the evocations so revealing, in the first part, one could find it somewhat bathetic. It didn't spoil it for me though; I found it sympathetic, interesting, and in some ways, equally courageous.

The Mistress's Daughter is highly recommended for all those interested in how we construct our sense of self.

My thanks to the good people at Granta for sending this fascinating book.

Alan Bennett's Untold Stories is another wonderful memoir by an author who values privacy.

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Magda said:

I read an excerpt in Observer or something and it annoyed the hell out of me. Less because of what she said (although on some level that too) and more because of the way she did, but then I tried to read another 2 things by her and I had the same reaction, so it must be me. I think you did it justice, though.

Jill replied:

I can see the constant evaluating would irritate some, but I think it's quite interesting!