When Daisy Johnson sat down to write her novel Under the surface, thanks to which in 2018 she became one of the youngest applicants for the prestigious Man Booker award, she had the myth of Oedipus in her head. Son of Laius, king of Thebes, he killed his father and married Jocasta, his mother, without knowing anything about the family ties that united him and her. A good drama from which to start even if it is not evident in the story that he ended up signing. The Periférica publishing house has recently published this novel in Spain, translated by Carmen Torres García and Laura Naranjo Gutiérrez.
The book about a disastrous mother-daughter relationship that is sweeping the world
The connection with the Greek family is found in the clear dysfunctional character of the relationships, in addition to some explicit reference such as the riddle “there are two sisters, one of whom begets the other and, in turn, is begotten by the first” . Johnson’s protagonists are a mother and daughter named Sarah and Gretel, who did not even appear in the first five drafts of the novel. They live together in the marginality until the first decides to disappear when the second is still sixteen years old. But before that moment, a young man named Marcus unexpectedly bursts into their lives, turns them upside down, and leaves the same way he came. Another trauma for the sac.
The abandonment of her mother not only leaves her orphaned by kinship – there is no father available – but also as an interlocutor in an intimate language that no one else knows. When Gretel begins (forced) her new life, she releases words invented by both of them that other people do not understand, which complicates their integration. Perhaps because of this relationship with language, she is trained as a lexicographer and works updating dictionaries as an adult.
The action of the novel does not take place in a linear way in time. In fact, it begins near the end of the relationship between the two. More than a decade after their separation, during which Gretel spent time trying to locate her mother anywhere she could think of including the morgue, finds her and takes her to live in his home. She suffers from Alzheimer’s and her treatment is still as complicated as before the abandonment, but Gretel needs answers about what happened, to fill in the gaps. Her current personality – withdrawn, unable to be intimate with people – is the result of her previous experiences and Sarah is the only one who can help her.
“Sometimes violence tempts me. If you were the woman of sixteen years ago, I think I’d be able to slap the truth out of you. Now it’s not possible. You’re too old to slap anything out of you. Memories flash like glasses of It came broken in the dark and then they disappear, “says Gretel. He hates his mother, but he needs her: “If I really cared about you, I would watch over your good and put you in a residence. Flowered curtains, meals at the same time every day, others like you. Older people are a species itself. If I still really loved you, I would have left you where you were instead of dragging you here, where the days are so short they are hardly worth talking about, and where we relentlessly excavate and exhume what it should remain buried. ”
Who can hate a mother?
Mother-daughter relationships have been dealt with in numerous books throughout history – what better material than what is cooked within a family – although not so much from the conflict or in depth. There are names of reference in this field such as Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison or Angelika Schrobsdorff, but there is still much to explore. Johnson precisely commented in an interview in The Guardian that is obsessed with mothers –Although she gets along wonderfully with hers, something that qualifies– partly because in many of the books I read the role of the mother seemed ‘filler’, without depth. Hence, he has written a book that helps fill that void.
She is not the only one that has brought the subject to the bookstore news tables in recent times, although to different degrees of intensity. Burnt sugar, Avni Doshi’s novel – Booker 2020 finalist – that Temas de Hoy published in Spain a few months ago translated by Raquel Vicedo, begins with a devastating phrase: “I would be lying if I said that I have never felt pleasure when misfortune happens to my mother “. It is a confession of the protagonist, Antara, who is forced to take care of her mother who suffers from senile dementia after a life of hatred and resentment towards her. The disappearance of her mother’s memory causes her a feeling of helplessness similar to Gretel’s: if the memories fade, so will the possibility of redemption.
Ivana Dobrakovová also investigates the issue in her book Mothers and truckers published in Spain last June by Sexto Piso with translation by Patricia Gonzalo de Jesús. The feelings are not as radical as those expressed by Johnson or Doshi, but their characters also have reflections that do not leave their parents in a very good place. “You have to explain everything to my mother. My father has to know everything. Or he would. He would like to continue controlling me, as if I were fifteen years old, but I have gotten the hang of it for a long time. I only tell him the bare minimum of what I do. I’m sorry, but after a certain age one should cut and not always wait for the approval of their parents. That is, their mother. ”
The protagonist of Stones in your pocket, Another of the titles that have been published recently is a young Algerian woman who works in a publishing house in Paris. Although she is supposed to be a young woman with a good profession and living her life the way she wants, she feels the same need for maternal approval even if she tries not to. The publishing house Libros del Asteroide was the one that brought Kaouther Adimi’s novel, translated by Aloma Rodríguez, to Spain. Less intense than the previous ones, it could be the one with which more readers identify [algo que no es necesario para que un libro guste, pero que a veces reconforta]. Especially since the protagonist does not wish the real death of her mother, although sometimes she has thoughts of the type: “did the murderer of Pithiviers have a mother?”.
Adimi guides the reader through the story through the calls of the mother, who is in Algeria, to her daughter, whom she hopes will marry at some point. The pressure increases when the younger sister of the protagonist announces her wedding, which pushes her even more into the universe of spinsters. In a city that did not seem as fantastic as it was planned, with a job that is far from fulfilling his aspirations and a limited social life (partly as a consequence of the two previous events), the dialogues with his mother are what he lacked for go sinking little by little.
“–Very well, in that case, I will not marry. Never.
“I’m not getting married, so what?” Staying single isn’t that dramatic.
At that point in the conversation, my mother sticks her head in the oven. ”
The plot may seem typical of a flat romantic comedy, but in reality it deals with uprooting, the role of women in different settings, how far a person’s authentic independence or the false promises of neoliberalism go. The insistence is personified in the mother who channels the pressures of a society.