Magazine article The Spectator

Digging Up Mummy

Magazine article The Spectator

Digging Up Mummy

Article excerpt

THE MEMORY BOX

by Margaret Forster Chatto, 15.99, pp. 276

Most women would claim to be experts on their own mothers, but not perhaps on their mothers' prehistory, unless those mothers were unreservedly expansive. Catherine, the heroine and narrator of Margaret Forster's novel, is not in that position, since her mother, Susannah, died at the age of 31, leaving the six-month-old Catherine to be cared for by others. Those others were circumspect and benign, in particular her father's second wife, Charlotte, whom Catherine would have said she preferred: no child would be glad to be associated with a death, however pathetic and regrettable that death was said to have been by those so benign elders -- grandmother, father, second wife - who saw to it that she should not suffer. So successful were they, and so favourable were the family circumstances, that Catherine grew up merely irritated by the reminder of that death and took care to distance herself from it as far as she was able.

But Susannah exerted a prior claim which at first Catherine was determined to repudiate. She left a box of mementoes, all apparently inconsequential, that passed into her daughter's possession after the other relatives had died. Catherine's reaction was one of intensified exasperation. She herself, at the moment of telling her story, is 31 years old, the same age at which her mother died of heart failure, with the baby in her cot beside her. Aged a few months at that time, the child could not possibly relate to her mother's death, and as far as she knew was perfectly happy with her father's new wife.

But the mementoes haunt her. They are puzzling and unconnected: feathers, a shell, a hat, a rucksack, an address book. Like a good heroine, at least a heroine in fiction, she sets out on a quest to see where they will lead her. They lead her in various directions, all of them inconclusive. This is where Margaret Forster reveals herself as an experienced practitioner, far too experienced to promise revelations. Why else would she have Catherine journey to Cumbria, or to Becquia in the Grenadines, only to find no answers at the end of such journeys? In any event it seems unlikely that her frail mother, suffering from heart failure, should have gone fell-walking or sailing, even less likely that the address book should contain no names, only addresses. All this is fairly frustrating, not only for Catherine but for the reader as well, as too many excursions are undertaken with no conceivable purpose in sight. …

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