Thicker than water

Mother and Child: lithograph by Henry Moore

Clara’s Daughter
by Meike Ziervogel.
Salt Publishing 2014.

Sometimes we’re never so alone as when we’re with other people; and yet even in solitude we can find it next to impossible to form a relationship with our inner selves. Meike Ziervogel’s novella cleverly plays with the disconnect between the several roles we play—as parents, partners, professionals, siblings, children—and our authentic selves.

The title hints at that disconnect. So too does the narrative, told now in third-, now in first-person, conveying immediacy in its consistent use of present tense but disorientating with some scenes told out of chronological sequence. And as we flit from observing the points of view of one character and then another we find them adrift in emotional seas, the distances between them widening as they float further apart.

Described as a ‘psychological thriller’ — though there aren’t any major shocks, I feel, nor are we confronted with individuals who are psychologically complex — this is really a family tragedy with an ending that, retrospectively, feels almost inevitable. That incipient inevitability doesn’t however stop one engaging with the narrative as it unfolds.

Clara in fact has two daughters, but we focus on Michele and hardly at all on Hilary. Michele is married to Jim, who has a friend called Gus, whom we see a bit of. Clara was married to Edward, but he’s dead now. They all live in affluent parts of North London, but being well off doesn’t mean they can’t be any less prey to their insecurities as the rest of us may be. And each of the main trio’s insecurities result in feelings of being lost, feelings which impact hugely on the others.

Clara, who is half German and retains her prewar childhood memories, keeps her late husband’s clothes in the wardrobe, but things aren’t going well for this 80-year-old — not only can she not settle back down to working with clay, as she used to, her daughters now have to fetch her from the hospital after a fall downstairs. Michele and Hilary argue about whether a residential home or a granny flat is the way forward, but Clara is angry and resentful that she faces losing her independence.

Meanwhile, Michele and Jim’s 25-year marriage is nearing a hidden reef: she has a prestigious job, he’s a part-time teacher, and their lives now seldom intersect. Plans for her mother’s future may be the rock upon which their relationship founders, blown there by delayed or postponed gratification. Is this story then about Clara or Michele? And where and how do Clara’s other daughter or, indeed, Jim fit in?

As the reader tries to plot a route through intersecting stories moving back and forward in time, certain motifs transform into metaphors or symbols. One is Clara’s clayworking, with her one masterpiece a mother-and-child sculpture; another is liquid water which, as we all know, is necessary for keeping clay malleable, and which is variously reiterated in sudden angry tears or when a shower turned on and off, in a rainstorm or in foreboding sweats, and finally with the ladies’ pond on Hampstead Heath.

Meike Ziervogel’s tale is about many things — loneliness, the elderly, marriage ties breaking, childhood memories and more — but the final pages suggest a theme that may draw a bit on the author’s own concerns or anxieties: in hanging on to possessions which represent a previous relationship is Michele in danger of turning into her mother? In other words, is blood somehow thicker than the watery images that suffuse this novella? and

Read for Novellas in November #NovNov

13 thoughts on “Thicker than water

    1. It’s a sad little portrait, Annabel, almost heartfelt since it read like it was partly drawn from life, as it were. As a picture of faulty family dynamics I suspect there’d be be something or other that most readers would recognise from their own experience.

      I tried this a few months ago but couldn’t get into it, so I think if I’d persisted then it might not have been so vivid in my mind either.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

    1. You’re welcome, Cathy, it’s certainly a melancholic tale; and now I’ve just completed a similarly melancholic novella from Susan Hill (the rather poignant Black Sheep) though I don’t think I’ll be posting a review of it in time for the official end of #NovNov.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ Lothin

    That sounds interesting, Chris – another Kindle sample on its way to add to my rather large so-far-unread collection of Kindle samples!

    And on a purely pragmatic note, what is the world coming to, when a paperback edition is a lot less than half the price of the electronic version?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An ebook costing more than the paperback and which you can’t lend or give to a friend is certainly an example of the World Turned Upside Down, JJ! And can a Kindle sample really convey much of what the reader might be letting themself in for? 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        … especially considering that an ebook costs a publisher more or less zilch to produce!

        And much though I’d rather have a barge pole between me and all things Amazon, I do find the samples quite useful in providing a taster as to whether I’m likely to enjoy the book as a whole. Though that’s perhaps owing to my own impatient nature, with its tendency to make snap decisions a mere few paragraphs in (sometimes even, I will have to admit, on the first sentence!) …

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, I get my ‘samples’ by opening a random page in a bookshop or library—so important as I don’t get on with digital books!

          And I agree about Amazon: can’t remember when I last got something from them, and that was only because I’d been given a gift voucher for them.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            Digital books bear no comparison, of course, to The Real Thing, and I do try my best to order from my wonderful local bookshop in the hopes that Evil Amazon won’t drive it out of business!

            I don’t know if you’ve come across a novel (thriller) called The Warehouse by Rob Hart: a chilling vision of an Amazonian future …

            Liked by 1 person

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