Five Best Books About Mothers and Daughters

From a Wall Street Journal story by Donal Ryan headlined “Five Best: Novel of Mothers and Daughters”:

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

By Angela Carter (1979)

1. At the beginning of the title story of this classic collection, the teenage heroine recalls how, during her train journey to the home of the powerful and wealthy marquis she had just married, she imagined that her mother would be lingering “over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter’s wedding day.” The girl remembers, too, feeling “a pang of loss” at the idea of having ceased to be her mother’s child upon becoming the marquis’s wife.

What follows is our heroine’s recounting of her gradual descent into the knowledge of the truth of her new husband: that his castle is a bell jar of evil; that she hasn’t been courted by a gentleman but preyed upon by a monster. Moments before she becomes a new exhibit in his grisly museum comes one of the most glorious and memorable of all literary rescues. Her mother, who as a teenager had “disposed of a man-eating tiger,” gallops along a narrowing spit through “the breakers of the savage and indifferent sea,” dispatches the monster and scoops her beloved daughter from the maw of death.

Territory of Light
By Yuko Tsushima (Translated by Geraldine Harcourt, 2018)

2. The word “luminous” is overused as a description of pellucid, evocative prose, but it is completely apposite for Geraldine Harcourt’s translation of Yuko Tsushima’s “Territory of Light.” The spare, precise language in this short novel, originally published in Japanese in 1979, is dazzling, like the light that washes the unnamed narrator’s apartment, which she rents after being abandoned by her boorish, emotionally incontinent husband.

Later, she reports, this ex-husband takes to “waylaying me outside the library or the building where I lived, abusing me then dissolving into tears.” The newly single mother refers to her child only as “my daughter,” and her struggle to maintain her small family and her own sanity plays out over 12 sublimely tense chapters. Exhausted, frayed, almost terminally stressed, the young woman negotiates the treacherous causeways of life as a separated woman in 1970s Tokyo, doing her utmost for her daughter, determined not to miss any “chance to offer her moments of joy.” She dreams of her child’s death and worries that “maybe some part of me wishes my daughter dead.” But we know there’s no danger; she wakes from the dark dream “so grateful for her return that I had to embrace her living body, amazed that the blessing of my daughter being alive had been granted to the likes of me.”

The Memoirs of a Survivor
By Doris Lessing (1974)

3. The mother and daughter in Doris Lessing’s novel, “The Memoirs of a Survivor,” aren’t related by blood, nor do they express much motherly or daughterly sentiment. They are forced into the relationship when an “unknown man” visits the narrator’s apartment, delivering a child and her strange hybrid cat-dog, Hugo, and declares that they are now the narrator’s responsibility. Emily is 12 and in “that halfway place where soon she would be a girl.” The world outside of the middle-age narrator’s apartment is crumbling into chaos; municipal authority is distant and spasmodic, bands of feral youths roam the streets.

The narrator feels guilt at her feeling that her foster child is an imposition, “a nuisance,” and longs “simply to walk through the wall and never come back. But this would be irresponsible; it would mean turning my back on my responsibilities.” And thus the novel’s core is revealed: the idea that we have no choice but to care for those in our charge, to love against all odds and obstacles, even though it might not be reciprocated, acknowledged or rewarded. Emily herself takes on the care of a lost child later in the novel, and when her foster daughter leaves her, the narrator describes Emily “weeping as a woman weeps, which is to say as if the earth were bleeding.”

The Piano Teacher

By Elfriede Jelinek (Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1988)

4. Elfriede Jelinek’s “The Piano Teacher,” first published in Germany in 1983, is a devastating study of dysfunction between Erika Kohut and her haughty, cosseting, censorious mother. Erika, we are told, lived a sheltered youth, but this overprotectiveness didn’t work. She develops a penchant for masochism and pornographic peep shows, and spends her nights wandering Vienna’s occluded, forbidden places while her mother waits for her at home.

The pair grind each other into a state of spiritless dread. Mother tells daughter that “she is homely. . . . Mother threatens to kill the child if she ever so much as sees her with a man.” Erika embarks on a torrid affair with her piano student, and the novel becomes a delirious, twisted, deranged study of subverted desire given frenzied expression. The ubiquitous warning of “not for the faint-hearted,” so often slapped on narrative art, is absolutely appropriate here. The timid reader should stay away.

The Bees
By Laline Paull (2014)

5. Flora the bee is passionately loyal to her Holy Mother the Queen. She has been told she is ugly, and her role in life has been strictly delineated. Male characters in Laline Paull’s utterly absorbing novel come in the form of drones; swaggering, bombastic, foolish and vainglorious, they demand the unrequited care and consideration of their multitudinous sisters before meeting their sticky ends.

Flora has a series of apotheoses, emerging from her pupa to embark on a life of the basest labor before being assigned the role of nurturer, then forager, on her way to becoming the mother of all daughters. The journey toward her destiny is described in loving detail by Ms. Paull, who anthropomorphizes the insect world with such care and skill—and elevates their societies, rituals and struggles to a level so extraordinarily high—that we homo sapiens seem the unlikeliest inheritors of dominion on this planet. “The Queen Bee is the mother of all,” the author once said in an interview, and nothing brings calm to her daughters like “the blissful scent of mother love.”

Donal Ryan is the author, most recently, of ‘The Queen of Dirt Island.’

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