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The Knife by the Handle at Last’

The Sum of Our Days

by Isabel Allende, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Harper, 301 pp., $26.95

The family memoir gives structure to old emotion and scattered recollection, allowing its author to take control of the past. Perhaps particularly for women writers, it offers the opportunity to turn the tables on oppressive patriarchal hierarchy. At some point, all five books under review portray male presumption as fragility, not strength, and celebrate the erstwhile victim’s authorial power: to write the story is to have the knife by the handle at last.

The genre presents its authors with a major conundrum and, not unrelated, a serious obstacle. What kind of truth can come out of only one participant in the family drama? How far is it permissible to modify events for dramatic effect? When Doris Lessing purports to remember in the most minute detail the moth-eaten party dresses she pulled, aged thirteen, from her mother’s trunk, inviting us to marvel that anyone could have supposed these fancy garments might be appropriate for a Rhodesian farmer’s wife, the memoir loses conviction. A novelist’s creativity can be counterproductive when writing nonfiction.

Then there’s the question of privacy: self-revelation is every author’s right, but revealing intimate details of others’ lives may be a matter for the courts, or at the very least may cause distress. Miranda Seymour’s account of her father’s life and Marie Brenner’s portrayal of her brother seem possible only because the two men are dead, but as we approach the final pages of Rachel Sontag’s book and see no sign of her father’s having died, the mind boggles at the thought of his reaction. When Isabel Allende tells us, at the end of her memoir, that on showing the typescript to those concerned, a stepson insisted that all references to him be removed, this reader felt a certain satisfaction that at least one member of the family had resisted her condescending charm.

Lessing’s Alfred and Emily distinguishes itself for the nature of its anger and political engagement. The burden of her memoir is that she never knew her father “as he really was,” or her mother “as she really was.” “The First World War did them both in,” she tells us brusquely:

Shrapnel shattered my father’s leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one. He never recovered from the trenches. He died at sixty-two, an old man. On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War. My mother’s great love, a doctor, drowned in the Channel. She did not recover from that loss.

To underline this impression of not having known her parents before they were irretrievably damaged, Lessing dedicates the first half of her book to a novella in which she imagines the happier lives they might have enjoyed had the war never happened. In this alternative history, the cricket-loving Alfred prefers work as a farmhand to his parents’ more middle-class ambitions and marries not Emily but a plump, jolly nursing companion of hers.

As for Emily, having lost her mother early on, she defies her authoritarian father to take up nursing rather than go to university. Starved of affection, she seeks a surrogate mother in a friend of Albert’s parents and a surrogate father in a doctor whom she marries before realizing that he is a cold-hearted tyrant. Her good luck is that he is soon carried off by a heart attack, allowing her to spend his considerable fortune on philanthropic ventures: schools for poor children, refuges for unmarried mothers. The activity puts her in productive touch with Alfred, who is involving himself in a school for the children of his own village.

Presented as traditional fiction, the tale is so contrived and perfunctory, takes such easy swipes at such long-pulverized targets as the English class system and bourgeois moral hypocrisy, that many readers will be tempted to skip to the real story in the second half of the book. In particular, it’s interesting that for Lessing, happier lives for her parents means lives whose political and social commitments she can feel happy with. The second part of Alfred and Emily immediately comes to life with bitterness, anger, regret. Having lost his leg in the war, Alfred married a woman who nursed him, took her to Persia, where Lessing was born, then moved to Rhodesia, hoping to make a quick fortune farming maize in order to return to England in style. It didn’t happen and the couple found themselves marooned in a place they had never planned should be home. Struggling with his wooden leg, afflicted now with diabetes, Alfred never ceased to evoke the nightmare of the trenches, endlessly repeating his horror stories to Lessing and her brother. Disappointed with her African life, the once energetic Emily often took to her bed in self-pity or, again and again, recalled for her children in obsessive detail the sufferings of the soldiers she once cared for: > And the worst, you see, the worst was when they were calling for their mothers. They were just boys, that’s all. I remember one little lad, he was sixteen, he had pretended to be eighteen, but he was just…. He died calling for his mother, and I….

The reader is made to feel the burden that this constant rehearsal of harrowing memories becomes. “I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me,” Lessing writes. “Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my own memory, my own consciousness.”

The “use of it” is evident enough. It has inspired Lessing to write many strong antiwar pages, some of them toward the end of this book when she talks about the civil war in Zimbabwe. But her insistence that her damaged parents were no longer their “real” selves and hence beyond criticism is troubling. Defending the position, Lessing grows shrill:

So there was this load of suffering deep inside my mother, as there was inside my father, and please don’t tell me that this kind of pain, borne for years, doesn’t take its dreadful toll.

Frequently chided for his or her supposed superficiality, the reader is not invited to reflect that it may have been precisely this isolation in Rhodesia and the failure of the farming project that prompted Alfred and Emily to dwell so destructively on the past. Rather, Lessing insists on factors beyond their control: artificial legs were not as “clever” as they are now; insulin “was managed with none of the subtlety they use now”; there was not the same awareness of clinical depression or the drugs to treat it. The word “clever” occurs frequently, suggesting at once Lessing’s admiration for technical progress and her anger that it was unavailable to her parents:

These days she would not have suffered as she did. I keep coming back to the same thing: now, the clever medicine we have would have seen her through.

Away from the dogmatic statements, however, when we read of Alfred’s enthusiasm for the African sky at night and for bushmen’s rock paintings, or of the generous medical care that Emily gave to the local community, it’s hard to accept that these people were so helpless. In any event, the consequence of Lessing’s approach is clear enough: her anger—“To this day I can feel the outrage”—is shifted away from her parents and toward an antiwar passion that all modern readers can be expected to admire. The downside is that two complex personalities engaged in a difficult relationship are reduced to victims of circumstance. Any notion that antidepressants and clever medicines are on the way to eliminating family trauma is dispelled on reading Marie Brenner’s Apples and Oranges or Rachel Sontag’s House Rules. Brenner, a successful journalist in her fifties, had started to research her quarrelsome Texan Jewish family for a study of sibling relationships over several generations when her hostile brother Carl wrote to tell her he had a life-threatening cancer. The book she writes is the story of her attempt to get close to Carl during his illness, their reconciliation giving dramatic focus to the sibling study. Brenner’s intriguing account of her family suggests a milieu where members are prompted to assume extreme positions over divisive issues, each generation throwing up examples of the liberal, permissive, artistic, urban mentality in fierce and mutually defining conflict with the conservative, anal-retentive, bureaucratic, provincial mindset. Brought up to be the clone and hunting partner of his moral istic, businessman father, the frighteningly reactionary, control- obsessed Carl eventually broke away from the family and a career in law to become an apple farmer in Washington State, all his ferocious attention to detail and impatience with anything but slavish obedience now being directed to his orchards and workers.

Brenner is the orange to his apple, the “flighty and rebellious younger sister” to his “dominating older brother.” He loathes her liberal values, easy emotion, left-wing friends, and know-all, journalistic self-regard; she considers him a control freak and a dinosaur of right-wing Southern intolerance. Under threat of death, however, the two try to direct their aggression away from each other and toward the common enemy of cancer. Marie in particular goes to extraordinary lengths to show a sympathetic interest in her brother’s orchards and the crisis-bound fruit market, burdening the reader with the history of apple farming in the United States and speculating on family precedents that may have prompted Carl to take it up. But Carl remains suspicious; when his sister casually tells him that a friend of hers “sends his love,” he typically retorts:


I did not exaggerate. He sent you his love.”

I want it plain. I don’t want all this New York bullshit. He might have said send him my best or tell him hello, but he sure did not send me his love. Why are you always so filled with hyperbole? You are such a phony.” Then he slams the phone down.

Is Carl right?

Is Carl wrong?

Why is this such a terrible thing?

I could not say what I really feel. That I am desperate and afraid.

With his “fuck the cancer, fuck dying” attitude Carl embarks on a quest for cures, or rather anti-cancer weapons; it’s a battle. All life is a battle for Carl. Brenner follows him as far as Beijing and a dubious herb treatment, always taking copious notes. Convinced by a born-again evangelist that Jesus can cure him, Carl turns fundamentalist Christian. There is much showy grief and ambitious overwriting. Seeing the end nigh, Carl destroys all the belongings and papers his sister might have used for her research, then, warrior to the last, shoots himself to deny the cancer victory. However, the most disquieting sentence of the book comes with the last line of Brenner’s closing acknowledgments. “My most profound gratitude,” she writes, “is, of course, reserved for my brother Carl, whose courage, resilience, and discipline as he fought the battle for his life have shown me the way to be.” This reader for one had not interpreted Carl’s behavior in such a positive light. “Children should not be sent away from home aged seven,” Lessing tells us, recalling the moment she was packed off to boarding school. Readers of House Rules will not be so sure. Rachel Sontag tells the story of a girl singled out by her father, again Jewish, this time a hospital doctor, for a manic form of persecution and control. Her dress, hair, fingernail length, table manners, body language, and study habits are all closely monitored. There are elaborate rules for everything. Forgetting your house key may lead to being left outside for hours while the rest of the family watches television; trying to sneak a certain toy into a suitcase causes a holiday to be abruptly canceled. Late nights are forbidden. Makeup is forbidden. Duct tape fixes the stereo tuner to National Public Radio. “There’s a girl who really hates herself,” the father announces when he spies a trace of lipstick. His daughter is made to write letters of apology. She is made to write that she is selfish, a “rotten, worthless brat,” “a snake,…scum.” “I wish you were never born,” she is told. She yearns to leave. But it is the deeply disturbing tone of her father’s voice and with it the method behind his madness that Sontag, now in her thirties, captures so convincingly in this powerful book. Here he is, anxious that Rachel has been speaking badly of him while visiting her sick grandmother:

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