“We are a photograph, the same photograph of every year with me a summer older, so a summer taller: lanky Joan, outgrowing the world around her. It is always Selsey Beach, a stretch of bare sand on the South Coast, and there are certain constants: myself, Granny, in her tight-bodiced dress, crocheting or gazing out to sea, and Mother with her green Antarctic eyes, cross-sectioned and sepiad by the camera. Mother, as beautiful as ever under her hat but with her cruel stare frightening even the seagulls off the beach. Or was it just empty? Out of season?”
It’s Virago time! Library Thing is running its traditional ‘All Viragos, All August’, so my first offering is Joanna, by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, which I loved – it had me hooked from that first paragraph.There are moments when this novel feels overly melodramatic – positively gothic in some ways – and it explores some disturbing issues, including child abuse, mental illness, and what happens when the relationship between mother and daughter is damaged or twisted beyond repair. But it is a powerful story, beautifully written, and not easily forgotten.
It’s the story (actually, stories would be more accurate) of Amazonian red-haired Joan, her tiny, fragile mother Kitty, and her grandmother, Florence, and it’s written in four sections, with each member of the family telling her own tale (starting and ending with Joan), so you view them from three perspectives – as they perceive themselves, and as each of the other two see them.
I’m not sure this necessarily makes them more rounded, and I wonder whether any of the trio are reliable witnesses of the past, but they each tell the truth as they see it, and while parts of the narratives overlap, there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but together they build a picture of the events and circumstances which have gone to make the women what, and who, they are.
Florence and Kitty have been raised in luxury on the island of Jersey – Florence in the closing decades of the 19th century, and Kitty in the early years of the 20th century. But by the end of the First World War their charmed life comes to an end. Florence, newly widowed, discovers her husband has gambled the family fortune away, so her home and possessions must be sold to pay the debts, leaving her with what is described as a ‘pittance’. At the same time pregnant Kitty (who is obviously suffering from some kind of mental health issue) abandons her husband of just a few months and returns home. So mother and daughter move to London, where they live in self-imposed exile, and where Joan is born.
Towering over everyone else (in character, if not in stature) is diminutive Kitty with her glittering green eyes, her spite, her rages, her cruelty, her psychic ability to foretell a death – and her psychotic hatred of her daughter. It is a wonder that Joan is born at all, and nothing short of a miracle that she survives and thrives, despite Kitty’s violence towards her. Kitty is a monster. She has to be just about the worst mother you are ever likely to find. Her attitude towards her daughter goes way beyond dislike, or fear, or lack of bonding – she seems to see her as an abomination. She attacks Joan with her fists, and anything else that comes to hand – a broken, jagged-edged record and, finally, a carving knife. On that occasion (the incident which finally forces Joan to leave home), she tells the girl: “Red is the colour of the Devil. You are red inside and out.” And when she tells the story of her life she refers to her daughter as ‘it’.
As time passes Kitty’s behaviour worsens, and to protect the girl from her mother’s uncontrolled rages Florence packs her off, first to a Catholic boarding school run by French nuns, and then to another, run by German nuns who support Hitler.
There is a brief respite when Kitty marries again, but we know the marriage is doomed to failure and she cannot sustain the relationship.
Throughout everything Florence continues to protect Kitty – from herself, and from the world around her – fearing that if people realise her daughter is mad she will be shut away in an asylum. As I read this book, I kept wondering whether Kitty was always ill, or whether it was her traumatic marriage that tipped her over the edge, or the pressure of living up to the fact that she looked exactly like her mother’s adored, sweet-natured, beautiful sister, who died young.
And how culpable is Florence for covering up Kitty’s behaviour, and keeping quiet about her abuse of the child? And how much does her silence affect what happens to Kitty and Joan and shape their future lives? Is she doing the best for them – or for herself? “I have always been needed, and that has made my life seem full,” she tells us. She has always known her daughter is not like other people. “Kitty was a victim of circumstance, a beautiful flower transplanted into the wrong soil,” she says.