We know that the sirens of Greek myth, those beautiful winged women, lured sailors to destruction with the witchery of their song. A lesser-known fact is that, according to some post-Homeric authors, they were deeply vulnerable to their audience. If they failed to enchant those sailing by, they would fling themselves into the ocean. One wonders whether the seafarers were drawn as much by a subconscious pang of obligation as by the ethereality of the music. A siren’s survival rested on her ability to make people fall in love with her. When she succeeded, perhaps her targets sensed that it was their desire keeping her alive.
The sirens were among the first femme fatales, and they still speak to the dangerous ways in which charisma can combust with need. A typical siren narrative presents a character whose magnetism steers people into ruin. But the more interesting, contemporary spin on the trope—often involving relationships that are intense but not romantic, like the one between friends, or between a parent and her child—courts the possibility of a clear-eyed sacrifice, an act of devotion. Maybe the “ordinary” character doesn’t seek to possess the siren so much as to save her: to offer the needed adoration, regardless of cost. In literature—I think here of Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?,” parts of “The Great Gatsby,” and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—such a desire can seem both ennobling and suspicious. Is it the voice that’s so compelling, a reader wants to ask the narrator, or your power over it?
These tensions boil beneath the surface of “The Book of Mother,” a marvellous and unsettling début from Violaine Huisman, translated from the French by Leslie Camhi. (The book is subtitled “a novel,” but Huisman, who has written a richly imagined family history, is making a familiar claim: that “the truth of a life is the fiction that sustains it.”) Catherine, Huisman’s mother, plays the siren. She is what you’d expect: “one of the most beautiful women to have ever walked the face of the Earth,” crass, impossible, impassioned. Maman, as her daughters call her, is a former ballerina and a chronic self-performer. She drives fast, smokes with abandon, loves freely and ferociously. Her tirades inevitably end with some version of “fuck off,” and she cooks with her fingers, tossing “noodle salads using both hands.”
But there is another Maman, whose eccentricities are less endearing. This Maman faints frequently from drugs and booze, leaving her children on familiar terms with members of the local fire department. This Maman assaults a police officer; drags her daughter across the apartment by her hair; and despises the “whining of wimpy little brats,” whose cuts she disinfects with ninety-per-cent alcohol. This Maman commits arson (probably). When her husband cheats on her, she uses a kitchen knife to butcher the family dog and tells her despondent daughter that Grandma, that slut, drowned it in the Seine.
Maman suffers from manic depression. She received the diagnosis in 1989, when Huisman was ten, and the author still associates her mother’s disappearance—Catherine was hospitalized for months—with footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. “I was transfixed,” Huisman writes, “riveted to our television set, in which I discerned—past the glare of the screen, among the ruins, the debris, the rubble—traces of my mother: her mangled face, her scattered body parts, her ashes.” This register is extreme, but it matches the novel’s content. Maman “was excessive in everything,” Huisman writes, and the novel contains flashes of her ardor—showers of kisses, impromptu dance recitals—as well as a surprising amount of gore. (At one point, Catherine’s birth father, who is also her rapist, performs an abortion on his daughter, his rough ministrations unleashing “a geyser of blood.”) The book’s genre shuttles, siren-like, between horror and transcendent romance. When Maman comes to tuck Violaine in at night, “a faint odor of death lingered” on her lips.
The tumult of Huisman’s childhood is mirrored by the chaotic experience of reading her book. Maman’s voice “was so much more beautiful in its outrageousness,” Huisman writes, and she bends her own style to its headlong rhythms. (The work’s clausal extravagance makes it hard to quote—but consider one passage, in which Mom and Dad are fighting: “They tore each other’s hair out, they threatened to tear each other’s eyes out, he warned that he was about to die of a heart attack, she threatened to end things once and for all, and then he’d come out with the clincher, which might have seemed conclusive, had we not heard it so many times before: You’re a living Hell!”) For the first third of the book, Huisman jumps backward and forward in time, recalling conversations with relatives and her quest—as a quiet, dutiful child—to draw some sort of boundary between herself and her mother. (The crumbling Wall proves an apt motif here.) Remembering Catherine’s string of affairs, Huisman hesitates to call her own lovers men: “not out of ambivalence regarding my sexual orientation—I like rough skin, strong smells, being sized up, dealing with bodies that take up more space than mine . . . but because men belonged to Maman.”
The section’s most striking quality is the way it enacts, through form, a power struggle between Catherine, the subject, and Violaine, the narrator. Violaine often speaks in the first person, but she occasionally slips into a free indirect discourse from Catherine’s perspective. These monologues are then punctuated by glosses from Violaine, who attempts to wrest back control. For instance, here the two women collaborate, uneasily, on a description of Catherine’s time in the mental hospital: “She told us over and over about the barbaric treatments to which she’d been subjected” (Violaine). “She lay low. She bartered with other patients on the sly to make calls at the pay phone because she didn’t have a dime, not even to buy herself some smokes, and there was no one, no one, around to help her!” (Catherine). “She called all her most trusted friends in Paris—all meaning the two or three she hadn’t alienated or outraged—trying to at least get herself transferred” (Violaine and Catherine, with the former’s barb about the latter thrown like a wrench into the gears).
The messaging here isn’t subtle, yet it’s superbly effective. The book both depicts and performs a relationship of monstrous love and zero-sum logic. At times, Violaine seems eager to cede the floor, fondly reeling off Catherine’s catchphrases: “People are morons!” “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” “Oh, for fuck’s sake, what a motherfucking piece of shit!” But the point isn’t mockery, regardless of how funny the novel can be. A reader understands Violaine’s self-effacement as an act of care for Maman. Channelling her mother brings the narrator joy and heroic purpose. As Violaine explains, she and her sister “had been raised without limits, we had been compelled to redefine the realm of the possible, overcoming all barriers and harboring within ourselves the fantastical power of keeping Maman alive.”
In the book’s second section, that power is exercised to what feels like its utmost extent. Violaine more or less gives her narration over to Catherine, telling her mother’s story, from beginning to end, in an uninterrupted close third person. The results of this self-erasure are riveting. There are detailed portraits of Catherine’s mother, father, stepfather, and grandparents; of her first, second, and third husbands; and of most of her in-laws. Themes repeat: physical abuse, rape, neglect. But stability remains elusive. The proliferating characters behave unpredictably, as if born anew in every scene—not unlike Catherine herself, who swings wildly between elation and despair. If the structure of the book’s first section makes it difficult to track who’s who, the torrent of personalities—all of them malleable—in the next section achieves a similar effect. This second stab at Catherine’s story, which strains poignantly for polish and shape, only heightens the sense of identity as edgeless, messy, inclusive.
A highlight is Catherine’s first encounter with the man who will become Violaine’s father. By this point, Catherine has survived meningitis, an icily acquiescent mother, and a suicide attempt, and she’s secured working-class stability, having opened her own dance studio and married a kindhearted real-estate agent. But Antoine, an obscenely wealthy libertine, swoops in, inviting Catherine to a tryst at a Venetian hotel. Spellbound in part by the man’s dark-green Jaguar, she accepts, and, in the set piece that follows, a wage earner observes the caviar class: “[Catherine] hears names that she doesn’t recognize, she understands that [Antoine] has a lot of worries, but she doesn’t know what kind, exactly, it seems he has all kinds of problems, money problems, work problems, problems of the heart, health problems, psychological problems, clearly, a seemingly infinite number of problems.” Catherine sees through her new suitor, but does not discount him, and later falls ecstatically in love with him. It is a testament to Huisman’s own equilibrium as an author—or maybe to the low bar set by the rest of the cast—that one closes “The Book of Mother” with a soft spot for Antoine.
I stress this interlude in part because it distills something in the work as a whole. One develops a soft spot for many of Huisman’s characters, despite their hideous and sometimes criminal behavior. Their larger-than-life swagger is the first lure. Their human frailty is the second. And yet there is, there must be, a degree of daylight between cherishing someone and feeling a need to save them. When the book’s middle section concludes, Huisman resumes narrating as herself for a brief coda, and we don’t hear directly from Catherine again. Without spoiling too much, Maman’s song cuts off when it stops working—which is to say, when it can no longer drive others to self-destruction. What remains is Huisman’s own novel, a labor of love, which considers primal conflict with a tender psychological acuity. It’s as if Huisman has fought with her mother, surrendered to her, and finally moved on. The book is dedicated to Huisman’s sister.