‘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…

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