THE STORYTELLER’S DAUGHTER
Author: Maria Goodin
Allen & Unwin RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Published under the title Nutmeg in the UK and From the Kitchen of Half Truth in the US, The Storyteller’s Daughter is a poignant and touching treat of a book which explores the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships. The Australian title seems to fit best, followed by the US title; the UK title, while food-related, doesn’t really give an inkling of what the book is about.
The story centres on the relationship between Meg and her mother, Valerie. At 21, Meg is hard-pressed to remember anything about her early childhood, except that which her mother has told her: her father was a French chef who died in a tragic pastry-making accident; she was ‘ripened’ on a sunny windowsill because she was so small; she has a scar on her cheek from when she was nipped by one of her mother’s crab cakes. These stories flavour Meg’s life with colour, imagination and wonder until she is eight years old, when reality begins to assert itself. Meg looks back at her adolescence with a mix of embarrassment, anger and guilt – while these feelings are not unusual for most adolescents, it’s the guilt of wishing her mother was “normal” that haunts Meg.
Meg buries her guilt beneath a façade of seriousness. A yearning for simplicity, straight-forward words, for “being surrounded by people who saw the world in black and white, who spoke the facts, who stated the truth” and a lack of confusion has led her to Leeds University and science. Her boyfriend is a scientist, her peers are scientists (or studying science) – with them and with her studies, Meg feels comfortable. An exciting career in science is looming and Meg feels respected, rather than being a laughingstock. So when she is called home to care for her dying mother, Meg sees this as an opportunity to find out the truth about her background – to finally separate fact and fiction. But are her fictional memories better than the truth?
At the outset, Meg comes across as a little harsh. With her focus on gaining the approval of others, she is overly critical of her eccentric mother. Instead of trying to find out why Valerie is the way she is – looking at cause and effect is probably too philosophical in her view – Meg is led by her boyfriend’s unsympathetic view of her mother. She knows this is true, to some extent, but pushes this aside. It is this side of her that develops the most, as her adult self spends prolonged time with her sick mother, and her prejudices are brought to the surface by her mother’s gardener. Her softer nature rises to the surface as the summer continues and her mother’s health fades. It’s nice to meet the softer, kinder Meg.
Eccentric as she is, Valerie is a lovable character who pours all her energy into her daughter and others. She buries past hurts in positive thinking, cooking and fiction – these are her well-developed, very effective defence mechanisms. To me, it was obvious what Valerie was doing (and I wondered why she chose to live in a world of fiction, what had happened to her), so I questioned why Meg seemed so blind to that. It was only when Meg started to discover some facts about her mother’s past that she started to view her mother as a hurting woman; when she pushes against the defence mechanisms, Valerie’s anxieties come to the fore. Her character and her back story was a reminder that we so easily brush off people who are a little different – whether they are mentally ill or not.
As for the stories Valerie told, I loved them. They were charming, clever, romantic tales of whimsy that usually revolved around food, creating enticingly delicious and sometimes funny images.
Some elements were a little predictable – the contrast between Meg’s lacklustre boyfriend Mark and the energetic gardener, for example. And while some things left questions, others seemed answered or resolved a bit too easily. However, for me, that wasn’t enough to stop me reading. As a mother and a daughter, I wanted to see how the mother-daughter relationship developed (it’s funny how these relationships, based on unconditional love, are still so fraught with emotion, power battles, judgment and more). I also wanted to see if Meg could find out who she was – if she could accept that her mother’s stories were as much a part of her as logic and reason.
This bittersweet novel will invite readers to reflect on their own relationships, and I hope, the way we forget that behind the masks, everyone is fighting a battle. You do need to read it slowly so you can taste its true flavour.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.