Excerpt from The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Book of Mother

A Novel

by Violaine Huisman

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman X
The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2021, 224 pages

    Paperback:
    Oct 2022, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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That Christmas, like every other Christmas, my sister and I were buried in presents, snowed under with packages wrapped in brightly colored paper and encircled with ribbons, all of it laid out under a fir tree decorated—by whom? Who knows. How could the adults in our life— and Papa above all—have had the audacity to prepare such a holiday for us? We wanted Maman for Christmas, was that so hard to understand? We didn't want any presents when we couldn't have the only one that counted—Maman. Where was Maman? And when would she return?

Christmas was always a calvary for us, but that year, we were obliged to proceed through all the Stations of the Cross, and at the time I couldn't believe—and I still can't believe—that we were forced into pretending that we loved our presents, that they were sufficient, so as not to hurt Papa's feelings. It was all meant to please him, and we mustn't upset him, he was the only one we had left. We weren't prepared to be orphans, so we did our best to play along, to smile and say thank you, and to go into raptures as much as possible, so that Papa wouldn't throw us out in a fit of rage. We couldn't let our ingratitude betray us—not the ingratitude Maman had regularly accused us of, but the eternal ingratitude of children (because as everyone knows, children are always ungrateful, their lack of appreciation for the many sacrifices their parents have made for them is an established fact). We celebrated Christmas even though Papa was a bit Jewish around the edges, as Maman said. He said he was an atheist.

The defining event of my father's life was the Second World War. The son of a Cabinet member and former Vice President of the Republic, from a young age Papa had grown up in the Élysée Palace and, later on, in official residences of comparable luxury, but when the war broke out, the Judaism of his ancestors had nearly cost him his life. His father, dismissed from his post and banished, found himself penniless. Papa recalled that one day in the middle of the war, when they were hiding out under an assumed name in Marseille, his father informed him that if by the end of the month he couldn't find the money to support his wife and children, they'd all go throw themselves off the dock of the Old Port. I had noted, in my father's personality, the ravages of this psychic wound, the extent to which he remained scarred by the unspeakable experience of fearing he would be killed because of his religion, of losing everything from one day to the next. Between the difficulty of our respective childhoods there could be no competition. The disappearance of Maman, for my sister and me, could not compare with the war's horror for my father.

Maman's tragedy, the one she never recovered from, the scratch on the record that caused her to repeat herself, endlessly, was the emotional neglect she had suffered in her own childhood. Her mother, of course, was the one to blame. She had opened a hole in her daughter's heart by giving birth to her, and had left it gaping. Faced with her mother, Maman was an abandoned child all over again, choking up at the very sight of her. She said she felt something rising in her throat as we approached Grandma's house, she felt a lump—as if the stifled sobs of her childhood had congealed there. In front of her mother, she became an overgrown teenager, perpetually angry, puerile. Grandma responded to her daughter's tirades or effusive tenderness with the same paralyzing coldness, powerless before Maman's excesses. That Grandma was icily beautiful didn't help matters. Her features, exceedingly fine, possessed an intimidating symmetry. Her habitual expression was a kind of pout, midway between weariness and annoyance, her pinched lips, her narrow nose turned up with disdain. Her face resembled a Venetian mask, brandished against the steel blue of an arctic sky. Her jet-black hair, always pulled back into an impossibly tight chignon, called to mind the black swan from the famous ballet. That hairdo, it's just too much! Maman would say, making fun of the hairstyle her mother had adopted after opening her dance school in Montreuil. Maman's birth had been neither planned nor desired, and on top of the accident of her birth, there had been her childhood illness, and then her mental illness. Grandma had done what she could: pregnant at twenty, married to a nightmare of a man, giving birth to a puny little baby girl, anorexic, sickly, and soon gravely ill. Maman said that from eighteen months until she was five years old, she lived at Necker, the famous children's hospital, in the immediate aftermath of the war. Grandma was vague about the dates. Maman said that Grandma never came to see her in the hospital, even though visits were allowed, she knew that because Granny, her grandmother, came regularly! Maman remembered the name of the great professor who directed the wing of the hospital in which she'd grown up, she recalled the hospital beds around her emptying, she knew very well what that meant, that the children were not cured, that they were not coming back. She said that if she got out of there alive it was thanks to a nurse on her floor who became fond of her. Psychologists have studied the effects of separation on young children, orphans or seriously ill children. Without the constant presence of a stable, affectionate figure to whom they can become attached when they are young, some children will waste away and die, others will never learn to walk or to speak, all will suffer serious behavioral problems. Human contact is required to create a human being: bodily warmth, a comforting smell, a calming breath, the fluctuations of a beloved voice, a loving touch, the brush of someone's lips. Maman understood this intuitively, and maybe a nurse did save her life. In the same way my sister was sure that she owed her own good health to my birth, twenty-two months after her own. The permanence of my presence, the simple fact of my existence had evidently rescued her. Maman, however, was an only child, and her own mother would probably have aborted Maman if she could have done so.

Excerpted from The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman. Copyright © 2021 by Violaine Huisman. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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