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16th of October 2018

Entertainment



Her Mother's Daughter review: Nadia Wheatley recalls a deck of stacked cards

This is an odd book. Nadia Wheatley is famous for her children's books and for her remarkable biography of Charmian Clift, one of the greatest essayists in our history. In Her Mother's Daughter she lavishes her formidable powers of documentation on the life story of her mother (who died when Wheatley was a little girl) and the shadow this and other things have cast on her life.

Her mother, Neen, seems to have been a remarkable woman even though the most colourful things in her life seem have been her experiences in and after World War II, first as a nurse in the Middle East and then in the horrifying aftermath of the Holocaust, working with victims at Belsen, the concentration camp.

She came from a strict Methodist family, she always wanted to go overseas with the younger brother she had mothered. The war seemed her chance and the letters she writes back from Gaza or Germany have as much sparkle as anything could have that issues from an ordinary person writing in something less than intimate mode.

That's the paradox that Her Mother's Daughter rides, though Wheatley clearly believes with G.K. Chesterton that there's no such thing as an ordinary person, least of all this mother, dead of cancer, diagnosed as off her head, treated with coldness and contempt by an unlovely husband.

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The trouble if there is a trouble – and some people will adore the stony precision of Wheatley's style – is that this is both the story of her trauma, subjectively recapitulated with a grim depressive intensity and a concerted attempt to establish the occluded facts of her mother's biography.

She married an Englishman, a doctor, who was in charge of trying to restore humanity and decency in the wake of the Nazi concentration camps but who seems, initially at least, to have been insensitive to the fact that the former camp inmates didn't – understandably – like the idea of German medical staff.

Neen understands this better but this failing becomes associated with the fact that Wheatley's English father seems to have liked telling his little daughter about Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper and showing her pictures of Indonesians who had just had their heads chopped off.

Various relatives think he was cruel, perhaps actively as well as sexually sadistic. He certainly had affairs and he claimed to believe that Nadia's mother's symptoms were hypochondriacal when she pretty manifestly had something wrong with her heart and ultimately died of cancer after a terrible period when she was diagnosed as mad and was subjected to a course of shock treatment that affected her memory.

Wheatley's childhood memories are piteous. She placates the father she loathes, she hopes her mother will let her keep the lovely silvery alsatian stray but she doesn't. And she's haunted too in her '60s radical days by the fact that some helpful heartless family member says her mother was bitterly anti-Communist and would have hated what her daughter became.

Nadia Wheatley tells us this meant that she wanted nothing to do with the memory of her mother but although the enigma of her mother's anti-Communism (which seems to co-exist with the fact that she was originally a bit of a lefty herself) runs like a leitmotif it's never quite elucidated.

And there's a fair bit in Her Mother's Daughter that seems to hover in the shadows of the valley: parts of it are, as it were, fictionalised, and it certainly has a winding stair, detective story-like structure, but the baldness of the factual detail, parts of which wring the heart, are not fully imagined – it's as if they can't be and this gives the book its peculiar awkwardness in the midst of a heartbreak that remains somehow implicit.

We learn at the end of Wheatley's melancholy when the year moves, memorially, towards dark remembrancing. We learn of how she could wake screaming. We learn of how she was touched up by some rich chap who ended up being knighted (we have been waiting for something like this but when it comes it doesn't have symbolic weight).

None of which is to deny that this is a tough-minded attempt to salvage and preserve as precious tokens both the hopes and charms of a long dead mother and the things she and her exceptionally talented daughter suffered at the hands of a callous world.

Would it have been better to have more art, more artfulness, more power of design as in Nicholas Shakespeare's little book about his aunt, Priscilla, or Andrew Motion's memoir about his mother, In the Blood?

Yes, I think so. But who are we to say in the face of this massive act of excavation and self-exposure? Who could forget little Nadia Wheatley's delight at Tintookies or at seeing Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake? Who could fail to believe in the fineness of her mother, Neen, and how meanly '50s Australia – with the help of a creepy sounding husband – stacked the cards against her?

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