Owing to the title of this book and in addition its contents (necessarily discussed below) I’m leaving my usual synopsis paragraph to this one sentence.
Royle’s third narrative book, his first narrative non-fiction (I say ‘narrative’ because the author has also written many academic works), does both what it says on the tin and what it implies on the tin if you were to look at the tin more closely. Mother: A Memoir is a mixture of straightforward memoir about the author’s mother but also a book about the concept of a mother – particularly, of course, his mother – and the concept both of writing a memoir and of memoir as a written form. It’s about writing. What this means in brief, is that this is a highly experimental, artistic, and language and linguistics related book that is nevertheless also a standard memoir.
But ‘standard’, in any quantity, doesn’t really explain this book. The only book that this one comes anywhere close to being similar to, at least to my admittedly limited knowledge, is the Royle’s previous book, An English Guide To Birdwatching. The book succeeds in being something very special: from the title, it’s a memoir of the author’s mother, Mrs Royle. (I’ll be referring to Nicholas Royle as ‘the author’ from now on to limit any confusion.) However as you read through it you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s only half about Mrs Royle, until you’ve read enough to discover that in actual fact it may be more of a memoir and more of a tribute to her than you could have imagined.
The book is also about a love of reading and literature in general; some of the best passages discuss times when the author and Mrs Royle conversed about texts, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in the many references to novels and poems that are included without further comment. It can take a few pages to get into it, with its various versions of wordplay, but it’s very easy once you’ve got the hang of it. It’s very appealing and often quite fun.
The writing style is great; there are stylistic choices deliberately chosen and accounted for. The most obvious is in punctuation; the book is devoid of commas, there are none except in quotations, because, as the author says on page 25 (bracketed text mine):
But in writing about my mother I have been compelled to respond to what was quirky and singular about her own language. I have experienced a kind of unfettering. And stumbling into a new closeness to her in the very reaching out to shape words and syntax – idioms and ironies – in the wake of her voice and her laughter. In the remembered tricks and turns of her vivacity. I discovered I had to write – for better or worse – without commas. Things linked without notifications or signposts. Continuous but broken. Making more use of dashes. In sentences sometimes lacking main verbs. Or subjects. Discandying flux. Even if at the same time I cannot write a sentence without wanting to pay homage to my father’s lifelong Maxwellian [both Royle’s and his brother’s word for their father’s passion for the English language, based on his name] vigilance as Grammaticality Enforcement Agency.
(The extract shows the other effect of the lack of commas – the book is quite often very poetic. It also quite often changes the ‘natural’ emphasis in a sentence to highlight what is truly important in it.)
Perhaps – likely? – the author’s father wouldn’t have appreciated the way the book was written, which in the context of the family and the addition of Mr Royle’s letters to newspapers, is an interesting idea in itself. But there’s also an interesting question that this reviewer found herself asking – does the author’s focus on his mother’s language, given the father’s was the language deemed more correct (and thus important), question the traditional ideas of the relative values of men and women’s work and so on? (I should point out the author never says this, it’s just something I took away with me.) It certainly questions whether Mr Royle’s use of language is necessarily better (employed in Mrs Royle’s correspondence, his corrections in the letters she wrote are shown in the author’s discussion and reproduction of one of them).
This is perhaps the time to also note that Mrs Royle was a dedicated, passionate nurse who was well loved by many. Stories of her work are many, are lovely, and are spread throughout the book. (The narrative is not linear – the content is divided into chapters each on a theme – and scenes and elements of Mrs Royle’s life are returned to.) Quite a number of the photographs show Mrs Royle at various stages of her career.
It’s also perhaps the time to note that as much as the book is about Mrs Royle, it’s also about her husband, the author’s brother, who sadly passed away at a young age, and many other members of the family. There’s a lot to be said for the cover photograph showing the nuclear family. This book covers the affects of a mother on lives – the affect of Mrs Royle on the author, his father, his brother, and inevitably somewhat the whole family on who the author is.
To be sure, despite the small number of pages – just over 200 – Mother: A Memoir is a book you will probably want to take a bit of time with; it’s a good one to savour. That’s related to the major point to make – this book is brilliant.
I received this book for review.