Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Finding Joan

I have an aunt who is now ninety years old. She no longer knows my name and how we are connected. During my recent visit, my uncle asked her whether she knew who Swee Lan was . She laughed a little and said “ Swee Lan? Of course I know.Swee Lan is my older sister, how can I not know who she is?” Swee Lan is the name of  my late mother.

The layout of my aunt’s house has not changed  since I first stepped into the house as a child, the same living room, the same old long mahogany table that has been sitting in the centre hall, the same round dining table sitting on the mosaic tiles floor at the back of the house where there is plenty of light and space. The additions are the pictures on the wall. She has six children and all of her grandchildren’s graduation photographs hang on the wall in an orderly manner and you could smell youth from their smiles that dazzle and shine. My aunt's grandchildren live abroad and when they visit her, she does not have any recollection of who they are. For all her life,my aunt has played the traditional role of a daughter, wife and mother  like most women in her generation who do not think too much about their identity. From the little that I know, Alzheimer patients remember things from the past as their memory degenerates like a tape erasing its recording in a reverse order. 

I want to keep only the good memories and  forget unhappy or unpleasant incidents  but it is not possible to pretend that they have never happened. Incidents stay in your mind in the way you want to remember them, often even bad memories do not seem so bad as time goes by. If one is inclined to think negatively, unhappy memories  may turn into some kind of plague that cause distress. 

My reading is not sporadic but my choices of books are random. A couple of  weeks ago , I read The Imperfectionists written by Tom Rachman and  the setting is in Rome. Then I started reading Lady Oracle, again the setting is in Rome. What coincidence. I had been meaning to read Margaret Atwood’s stories and I am glad that I started with Lady Oracle.

Lady Oracle is about Joan Foster who has faked her own death and she is constantly running away from her past and difficult situations. The book begins with her escape to an Italian hill town to take stock of her life. She is married to Arthur who had not known much about her past but one thing that she has told him was that her mother had named her after Joan Crawford. Joan narrates,

This is one of the things that always puzzled me about her. Did she name me after Joan Crawford because she wanted me to be like the screen characters she played- beautiful, ambitious, ruthless, destructive to men - or because she wanted me to be successful? Joan Crawford worked hard, she had willpower, she built herself up from nothing, according to my mother.’

‘When I was eight or nine and my mother would look at me and say musingly, ‘To think that I named you after Joan Crawford,’ my stomach would contract and plummet and I would be overcome with shame; I knew I was being reproached, but I’m still not sure what for. There’s more than one side to Joan Crawford, though. In fact there was something tragic about Joan Crawford, she had big serious eyes, an unhappy mouth and high cheekbones, unfortunate things happened to her. Perhaps that was it. Or , and this is important: Joan Crawford was thin.’

Joan thinks that one of the things that her mother never approved of her was her size as she was fat as a child and also as a young adult.

In Joan’s voice, Atwood wrote,
The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest ; the disputed territory was my body.’
‘I can never remember calling her anything but Mother, never one of those childish diminutives; I must have, but she must have discouraged it. Our relationship was professionalized early. She was to be the manager, the creator, the agent;I was to be the product. I suppose one of the most important things she wanted from me was gratitude. She wanted me to do well, but she wanted to be responsible for it.

Joan’s mother was an attractive woman, even into her late thirties, she had kept her figure, she had been popular in her youth.’

 As Joan is growing up, there are two key female characters in her life. Joan’s mother was unhappy and unfulfilled. Joan’s dad was an anaesthetist at the Toronto General Hospital .She had met Joan’s dad when she was a waitress at a resort in Muskoka. Joan’s father happened to drop by the resort to visit a friend. For the most time of Joan’s childhood, her dad was an absence. The memorable time of her life was spent with Aunt Lou, her dad’s sister who lived alone, a self- sufficient and independent woman. Aunt Lou gives Joan the opportunity to be herself. In one of  her daydreams, Joan has imagined that Aunt Lou is her biological mother. 

In  Joan's voice, Atwood wrote,
' You can't change the past, Aunt Lou used to say. Oh, but I wanted to;that was the one thing I really wanted to do. Nostalgia convulsed me.

Joan becomes a gothic romance writer and she finds her escape in creating different characters through the heroines in the stories she is writing. Lady Oracle is essentially about the protagonist’s quest to self-discovery through the different relationships she has as a grown up and how her childhood encounters and growing up  experience have impacted her.

Margaret Atwood’s prose is eloquent and her narrations in the first person’s voice alternate between flashes from the past and the present,  despite their meandering , are endearing .