A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux

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A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Scott Kemp
Reviewed by Scott Kemp
Summary: Annie Ernaux's memoir was written in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death. Yet the book suffers from its cold and 'objective approach', which frequently disperses the gathering warmth. Nevertheless, its brutal (and brief) portrayal of Alzheimer's Disease is powerful stuff.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 96 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Quartet Books
ISBN: 978-0704373440

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After spending two years in an old people's home, Annie Ernaux's mother finally succumbs to Alzheimer's Disease. It has been a terrifyingly protracted end, and one that has spawned feelings of absolute helplessness in her daughter, who watched as her mother's life crumbled before an 'imagination' that bore 'no relation to reality'. Yet Ernaux's distress is also fuelled by the realisation that she'll 'never hear the sound of her [mother's] voice again', and by the fact that the fraying bond between the present and the past has finally been 'severed'. Impulsively, Ernaux decides to recreate that past, hoping to 'bring her [mother back] into the world' through a piece of writing. In short, she is 'incapable of doing anything else'.

A Woman's Story is the brief yet densely packed result. Written between Sunday 20 April 1986 and 26 February 1987 (the dates are given at the end), the book goes in two directions at once. Primarily, Ernaux spends her time revivifying her mother, nosing around in the past, and painting an impressionistic picture of a semi-rural France. But she also allows us to witness her movements in the days after her mother's death. In doing so, she is careful to ground it in the everyday. For instance, when her mother dies, it's added that she died 'after breakfast'; and when Ernaux goes to buy a coffin at the undertaker's, he is quick to tell her that all their prices 'include tax'. Such incidents do a lot to puncture her bubble of grief, and work as signposts back to normality.

But it's difficult, and her mind is overrun by clichés. Her mother may've been the 'only woman who really meant something' to her, but, to Ernaux, she 'has no history'. Nevertheless, Ernaux begins to probe the surfaces of her memory and quickly fills in the blanks. Her mother was born in 1906, in Yvetot, a peripheral parish stranded between town and country. Growing up in poverty, her mother had a lifelong ambition for social progression, and her enjoyment of church, with all its pomp and ceremony, was a way of momentarily escaping her penury. She skipped school and took a job in a factory, where she felt 'civilised compared to the barbarians...and free compared to the slaves' (country girls and housemaids respectively), but still she resented her class. She soon married, and pushed her new husband to move in the grocery business, which he duly did: a formidable, and aspiring, matriarch was born.

Yet she was a capricious woman, and snooty to boot. But she knew her shortcomings (both personal and social) and didn't want her daughter to suffer the same. So she pushed her daughter, and made her the vehicle for her stifled dreams. Friction ensued. She wanted Annie to be among the 'cultivated people'; she wanted her to be a success. But all she did was prod her daughter away. Annie may have followed the correct and intellectual path, but it went hand-in-hand with an era of sexual liberation, an era her mother couldn't abide. So the pair spent years apart, only coming together again after Annie's father's death. Yet the two of them frequently clashed, and Annie's mother felt like a servant, a victim of the exploitation she'd spent her entire life trying to outrun. So she fled to some elderly accommodation, its cosy embrace the last refuge for her dwindling independence. And then the Alzheimer's, the conclusion of which we know.

Ernaux recounts all of the above in a short and punchy prose (a lot like the book itself). But for all its professions of empathy, there is little warmth, which is a bit of a problem. However, a lot of this is down to Ernaux's 'objective approach'. You see, she wishes to write about her mother, but she wants to do it stripped of 'the dark, heavy burden of personal remembrance'. Admittedly, she fights against this impulse, but the affection is muted. There are huge events that are skipped over, events which would have undoubtedly changed her mother's life. Before Ernaux was born, her parents lost a daughter - we don't know how. But of this cataclysmic event we hear nothing, its traumas concealed in the vaults of the past. And for a book of this type, this is a fatal mistake, because it shows an unwillingness to make an imaginative leap into her mother's many complexities.

Yet there can be no doubt that this was a difficult book to write. Yes, it would have benefited from a more in-depth analysis of her mother's character, but we must remember that it was written in the immediate (and topsy-turvy) aftermath of her mother's death. To create a character in the manner of Henry James would've been impossible. Nevertheless, Ernaux's objective approach doesn't allow us to view her mother properly, which is a shame, as she seems like a really prickly and interesting woman. Ultimately, though, Ernaux should be applauded, because the last fifteen pages, which document her mother's slide into Alzheimer's, are a sad and poignant account of a terrible disease. And Ernaux should take credit for that, for her book allows her mother's life to transcend its alarming end. In fact, it really does help bring her back into the world.

If you wish to read another account of a daughter trying to reconstruct her mother's past - albeit in a novel - then Hélène Gestern's The People in the Photo is a compelling success.

Buy A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux at Amazon.co.uk

Buy A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman's Story by Annie Ernaux at Amazon.com.


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