Academic journal article Hecate

Mourning, Melancholia and Melodrama in Contemporary Women's Grief Fiction: Kim Edwards's the Memory Keeper's Daughter

Academic journal article Hecate

Mourning, Melancholia and Melodrama in Contemporary Women's Grief Fiction: Kim Edwards's the Memory Keeper's Daughter

Article excerpt

Introduction

This essay examines the genre of women's grief fiction through the lens of psychoanalytic theories of mourning and melancholia. It concentrates on the family melodrama as an instance of popular, 'middlebrow' women's fiction, which addresses and sometimes exploits women's vulnerability as mothers and their anxieties around mothering. I will focus on the American writer Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter, (1) which explores the consequences to a family of concealing from the mother the live birth of a baby with Down's syndrome. This was her first novel, published in 2005 when she was 47. Written in an emotive and powerful fashion from the perspective of various family members, the novel explores the imbrication of the psychic and the social in its depiction of personal betrayal, family breakdown, and conventional attitudes to grieving and the disabled. Following analysis of critical reviews of the novel and a consideration of the reasons for its commercial success, I provide a psychoanalytic reading of the novel's representation of grief and loss, arguing that while it engages the classic Freudian model of mourning as consolatory substitution, (2) it also adopts the more ambivalent model of 'endless mourning' proposed in Freud's later work (3) and subsequently developed by feminist theorists. Making use of Julia Kristeva's concept of narcissistic melancholy, (4) I read The Memory Keeper's Daughter as an attempt to represent 'the real that does not lend itself to signification' (13), showing how it represents grief as a turning away from the realm of signs, a disintegration of bonds, and a retreat into asymbolia. Finally, I utilize Kristeva's concept of poetic language as a 'counter-depressant', which ameliorates the pain of loss without repudiating it, to suggest that this and other examples of women's grief fiction attempt to 'transform the woeful darkness into lyrical song' (162).

Women's grief fiction as domestic melodrama

A significant theme in contemporary women's writing is the loss of a child and the effects of this on the mother and her family. This preoccupation with the representation of bereavement obtains across generic boundaries within women's writing as a whole. Recent examples of what I call 'women's grief fiction' have taken the form of the crime thriller, for example, Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love; the gothic novel, such as Julie Myerson's The Story of You; (5) and the domestic melodrama as in Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter. Collectively, these texts explore the emotional impact of loss and grief on psychic well-being and relationships, often depicting the consequences of family breakdown. In terms of market, the genre is positioned somewhere between mass market and literary fiction. It belongs to a cross-over category of 'middlebrow' fiction, dubbed somewhat derogatorily 'mum's lit', which combines features of popular and literary writing to appeal to a wide audience of readers. Usually strongly plot-driven, women's grief fiction also aspires to represent psychological themes in a complex and sometimes poetic manner. Unlike mass market fiction, the genre is regularly reviewed by what is called in Britain 'the quality press', and the book blurbs often draw attention to the emotional power of such novels, if not always the presence of fine writing in them.

The domestic melodrama features strongly within women's middlebrow fiction. The term 'melodrama' comes from the Greek for 'song drama'. The OED defines it as 'a dramatic piece characterized by sensational incident and violent appeals to the emotions but with a happy ending'. (6) The Memory Keeper's Daughter, is an example of a highly successful family melodrama. As a hardback first published by Viking, the novel initially sold about 30,000 copies. It was then issued in paperback by Penguin in May 2006 and, through a combination of aggressive marketing, word of mouth customer recommendations and inclusion on book club reading lists, began to climb the bestseller lists. …

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