Today’s review comes from Frank. You can find out more about Frank here https://franklparker.com/about/
Frank has been reading The Memory by Judith Barrow
When I selected this book for review Rosie pointed out that it was a book that leans “heavily towards women’s fiction”. Now that I have read the book I understand what she means by that. I still think that it is a mistake to categorise readers in this way. I understand the importance of categorising books by genre. That helps potential readers decide whether a book is one they would enjoy. But most readers surely read across genres: they might choose romantic fiction one week, a mystery the next week and a thriller a week later. When you describe a book as “women’s fiction” you are not so much categorising the book as the reader.
To the extent that this book is about a woman’s life it will certainly appeal to women. In my opinion that does not rule out the possibility that it can be enjoyed by a man. What it definitely is not is a feminist account of how women’s opportunities are limited by the demands of men. On the contrary, it is the refusal of other women to shoulder their responsibilities, instead pursuing their own selfish interests, that determine the course of the central character’s life. The principle male characters are portrayed as fundamentally decent men whose support is invaluable to her.
As the book opens we see Irene struggling to care for her mother who has dementia. We are then taken back to the day, 40 years before, when Irene’s sister Rose was born. Rose has Down’s Syndrome and is rejected by their mother, leaving Irene to take on the caring role. As Irene’s life progresses, she moves from caring for Rose to caring for her grandmother, her father-in-law and, finally, her mother.
The book is structured with each chapter opening with a description of what is happening over a period of two days in 2002 as an increasingly tired and frustrated Irene performs various caring functions for her mother before returning to the chronological narrative of Irene’s progress from childhood, through adolescence, to an interrupted career as a teacher and marriage.
Along the way there are descriptions of working class life in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s that those of a certain age will recognise. If you remember Berni Inns and Babycham, or prawn cocktails and fondu sets, there are scenes which will make you smile to remember how we once thought such things were glamorous.
Teachers, too, will find interest in the debates about curriculum and teaching methods that surfaced at the time and are with us still today, especially where they relate to the treatment of children with “special needs”.
There were times when I found the structure irritating, particularly when Irene’s life story reached a day that has enormous significance for her. Not only are the details of the day dragged out across several chapters, but by repeatedly returning to 2002, the shock we know is coming – we can even make a good guess as to the nature of the shock – is delayed a little too long in my opinion.
Is it fair to call it “Women’s Fiction”? It is written by a woman and the central character is a woman. But it is a book that takes a critical look at the lives of women in the second half of the twentieth century. It was a time when women were told they could have it all: a career and motherhood. Like many, Irene, though she craves both, has neither. Sadly, that was, and remains, the brutal reality for many women. Should men read it? Definitely: they need to be reminded of these truths.
Mother and daughter tied together by shame and secrecy, love and hate.
I wait by the bed. I move into her line of vision and it’s as though we’re watching one another, my mother and me; two women – trapped.
Today has been a long time coming. Irene sits at her mother’s side waiting for the right moment, for the point at which she will know she is doing the right thing by Rose.
Rose was Irene’s little sister, an unwanted embarrassment to their mother Lilian but a treasure to Irene. Rose died thirty years ago, when she was eight, and nobody has talked about the circumstances of her death since. But Irene knows what she saw. Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty, betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past and finds hope for the future.