It’s worth reading this review at ANZ LitLovers so you can read Lisa Hill’s comments as well.
As I turned the last page of Iola Mathews’ 2009 Memoir, I was struck by how apt the word order in the title is. Despite the author’s honest protestations and the occasional fight against it, her Mother came first. Then, because of Mathews’ obvious love of the written word and a strong desire to simply put pen to paper, writing took a firm second place. In third place (or fourth, had the author chosen to insert ‘family’ into the title) is simply ‘Me’.
There is a tendency with Memoir to tell too much, to feel a need to explain something in depth which might otherwise be glossed over in fiction and Mathews does face this dilemma in the first third of the book, even letting us in on the struggle with: ‘Who the hell are you to tell people about yourself? This is pure self-indulgence. (24) The author, a former Age journalist, told Richard Fidler in a 2009 ABC interview that it is confronting for a journalist to talk about themselves and she admits she felt great embarrassment during the process. (audio or podcast available here if you are interested). In the interview, Mathews talks quite extensively about her “mid-life crisis”, something she believes we all have to face (personally I don’t agree with her on the inevitability of it).
I found the latter two-thirds of this memoir to be written more freely, the author looking outward, less intent on her inner thoughts, although an occasional phrase jolted (‘angry time bomb’ (26), ‘my heart jumped up and down in my chest’ (46)) and the inner dialogue between the author and her ‘Demon’ (we all have one) is a little clunky.
Elsewhere, a writer’s life is deftly illuminated. A friend of Mathews has this phrase: ‘It’s easy to write, you just stare at the screen until your head bleeds.’ (167) which I think is an adulteration of a Hemingway quote. When reading about the writers’ studio Mathews visited in the hills north of Melbourne, I pencilled in the margin next to the author’s fond description of a wisteria-covered courtyard, Australian bush paintings and Persian rugs, “a room of one’s own?” Lo and behold, the next chapter starts off with a reference to that famous Virginia Woolf essay.
In the chapter titled ‘Religion’, Mathews seems to have warmed up, as she relates to the beauty in the everyday: a warm, light garden, ‘the sun filtering through the large oak trees that spread over the front lawn’ (96), the moon reflecting on Regent’s Canal in London seizing her ‘with a moment of pure beauty and pure happiness’ (103). And throughout the book the author nails the procrastination and avoidance that can sometimes be the writer’s life: filing one’s nails, making cups of tea and watering plants – the minutiae of daily life gnawing into what should be writing time.
There’s some comic relief too. Admiring her mother’s new walking frame, Mathews lifts the padded seat to check what’s in the basket: ‘a romance novel, a clean handkerchief and a bottle of gin’ (112). Later, in a moment of solidarity, a friend of Matthews relates this little tale about her own mother who has Alzheimer’s:
‘After dinner my mother always says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.” I say “good idea,” and she has the Scotch and washes the glass and puts it away. Then a few minutes later she sits up and says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.” I say “good idea,” and she gets out the glass and has a Scotch, and washes the glass and puts it away. Then a few minutes later she says, “I think I’ll have a little Scotch before I go to bed.”’ (161)
The author turns her journalistic eye toward the birthing process when present for the birth of her grandchild, giving us a fascinating insight into the labour, episiotomy and exhaustion that brought forth little Caleb. I did have a chuckle though when I read that, as her daughter strained in the final stages, pushing with all her might, the author chose to place a hand on her shoulder and talk: ‘When I gave birth to Keir…’ (129). That might have been grounds for a slap in many a birthing room.
Mathews, Iola. My Mother, My Writing and Me: a memoir, Michelle Anderson Publishing, South Yarra, Vic. 2009.