Alison’s Picks – December


Only: a singular memoir by Caroline Baum. Baum is the only child of Austrian parents who were traumatised by their Jewish family’s experiences during the Hitler regime, and on settling in England felt driven to make the best life they could: to show by their conspicuous consumption that they were successful.  That driven-ness was a constant leitmotif in the life of young Caroline. Her father takes up much of the psychic space. He is bullying, capricious, highly intelligent, an enthusiast, an aesthete, a complex person altogether. The issue that hangs in the air for me, having listened to Baum reading her memoir, is the extent to which the trauma experienced by one generation is visited on the next. The disempowerment and cruelty to which Jewish people were subjected led many of them, I imagine, to over-compensate, once free. Young Caroline carried the heavy weight of that, embedded though she was in material opulence. This is an honest and compelling memoir.


The Bad Mothers’ Book Club by Keris Stainton. The focus here is on young women who are raising children, and the kinds of lives they lead. The political manoeuvring between the women, and their husbands, is amusing, and telling. Having read it and quite enjoyed it, I find I am ready to confront a possible prejudice that exists both in the wider community and in my own head. Is this classified as ‘chick lit’? In other words, is it light, entertaining and therefore without substance? Do I detect a tendency to dismiss books like this that deal with women’s lives? These women face issues that trouble them; they feel endlessly judged by all and sundry; they would die for their kids notwithstanding that those kids demand every ounce of their mothers’ energy and time. It’s hard, to do what they have chosen to do.

Stainton pulls no punches. She shows how each woman does things that hurt others, and that cause them to feel ashamed and confused. There are some ugly and visceral truths. Only with toughness of spirit do they find a way through the wood. If there is, in the reading community, a covert disrespect for novels that focus on the domestic rather than the broader socio-political – we need a reminder: home is the acorn, society is the tree.


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