On Beauty and Madness

For most of us, our parents hold a very special place in our hearts. They are among our biggest influences growing up. They nurtured us during our infancy. They guided us and helped us navigate the early years of uncertainties. They made sure that we live in comfort and they worked hard to ensure our future. They are among the first group of people we run to when we get caught in dire straits. Even during our adulthood, we seek their guidance. We defer to their wisdom whenever we are unsure of how to deal with a pressing concern. They are our first life coaches who silently cheer for us in the background. It comes as no surprise that many of us look up to them. It is their name that first pops out our minds when we are asked who our heroes are. They are the first people we thank whenever we have achieved a milestone. Their influences have become embedded in us.

Our parents are also one of the first mysteries of life we try to solve. In the same manner that not every child is built the same, so are our parents. There exists a world of diverse parents. There are innately good parents but there are also the inherently bad ones. There are the absentee parents and there are also the mad parents. Unfortunately, one is never sure what set of parents one is about to get; it is as uncertain as a bingo game. As the old adage goes, a child cannot choose his or her parents but one thing is for sure, no matter what kind of parents we have, we learn to adjust to the cards dealt with us, as captured by French writer Violaine Huisman in her debut novel, The Book of Mother.

“ON THE DAY THE BERLIN wall came down I was ten; television screens all over the world glowed with images of people cheering and chanting, swarms of men and women dancing and crying and raising victory signs in front of crumbling stones and debris and clouds of dust; in France, we attended this historic event via the evening news, with fadeouts to the somber face of the anchorman, whom we’d invited to sit down to dinner with us — at least those among us who ‘were’ sitting down to dinner, who still followed that family ritual and for whom the eight o’clock news happy had replaced the saying of grace as a sort of prayer for the Republic”.

~ Violaine Huisman, The Book of Mother

Thus opened the novel which was originally published in French in 2018 as Fugitive parce que reine and was made available to the anglophone readers through an English translation by Leslie Camhi in 2021. The Book of Mother is a fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood. It dug deep into how her memories of childhood were shaped by her intense, turbulent, but nonetheless heartwarming relationship with he mother, Catherine Cremnitz, the titular mother. Opening up the story was the young Violaine who was still a 10-year-old girl when the readers meet her. It was an impressionable stage where she was easily influenced by her environment. It was a time when she was equally bewildered and enamored by her equally charismatic and mysterious mother.

The book was divided into three parts, with the first part being the most intimate. Huisman provided glimpses into her the rough landscape of her childhood. Even at a young age, Violaine was cognizant that her mother was not a typical mother. Catherine, whom she and her older sister fondly called Maman, possessed an exquisite and haunting beauty that has captivated everyone’s eyes. She was also impassioned but, at the same time, crass. She had humor but she can also be scandalous. She was a magnetic personality who reeled everyone into her orbit, including her second husband and Violaine’s father, Denis Huisman, a prominent member of the French intelligentsia and the son of George Huisman, the founder of the Cannes Film Festival. Love for the arts, it seems, abounded in the family; prior to writing her debut novel, Huisman spent over two decades organizing arts festivals in New York City.

The young Violaine was no different from her father; she was drawn to her mother. However, Catherine’s exterior was a veneer that belied the madness that was lurking beneath the surface. She was mentally unstable and can be very impossible to deal with. She constantly dealt with manic depression, with which she was diagnosed in 1989. There were ghosts from her past that were ostensibly haunting her even in the present. These ghosts created a chasm between her, her children, and her husbands. It was these ghosts that kept disrupting the safe spaces that they all yearned for. Catherine was a disaster waiting to happen. Rather, she was a disaster that happened but despite this only deepened the air of mystery that hovered above her.

Her daughters were raised in an environment that was not ideal. They were forced to adapt to a childhood of paradoxes where the smell of cigarettes permeated but, at the same time, where love flowed abundantly. The combination, however, was claustrophobic. It was a world where beauty clashed directly with chaos. Due to the mother’s volatile personality, instead of a mother taking care of her daughters, we read of the reverse, of two daughters essentially becoming their mother’s guardian. At one point, Maman’s cerebral personality drove them into oncoming traffic along the Champs-Élysées. It was a challenge looking after and dealing with a mentally ill parent. Despite the tumult of her childhood, Violaine yearned to be part of her mother’s pulsating world. In young Violaine’s desire to unravel her mother we all see images of ourselves, even if it was just parts. There is a tiny voice in us that yearns to understand the individuals who made a huge impact on us.

“Up to that point, I’d admired my mother blindly, rapturously. But now a shadow had fallen over her image. Maman had sunk into a depression so severe that she had been hospitalized by force, for months. After having been lied to regarding the reasons for her sudden disappearance, I was informed that Maman was manic-depressive. The words all ran together—your-mother-is-manic-depressive—a sentence pronounced by one adult or another, one of those useless grown-up sentences that only added to my distress”.

~ Violaine Huisman, The Book of Mother

Maman loomed large in the story and in the life of her younger daughter. Towards the end of the first part, Violaine foreshadowed the trauma that has adversely affected her mother: “Maman’s tragedy, the one she never recovered from, the scratch on the record that caused her to repeat herself, endlessly, was the emotional neglect she had suffered in her own childhood.” This closing line was seminal in understanding the portrait painted by Violaine in the second part. As the story transitioned to the second part, the perspective also shifted to a third-person point of view. The second part was a daughter’s attempt at recreating her mother’s past.

The transition in voice in the shift of name. Rather than Maman, Catherine was used and while the first part was intimate, the second part was more conventional, at least where literature was concerned. As the story of the mother and the daughter merge, we read the repeated pattern of unwanted pregnancies and young children desiring to be loved by their parents. However, Catherine was raised in a household that did not want her, not her mother, not her grandparents, and not her great-grandparents. But we also read of the story of a young woman who overcame the odds to take over her own destiny. Like a phoenix, she rose from the ashes and shone brightly through the din.

Finding herself pregnant, Catherine resolved to redeem herself and not allow her children experience the same nightmare she had to deal with as a young girl. She had good intentions but the ruptures of her past were too overwhelming as they kept manifesting in the present. The complications of motherhood and parenthood were the novel’s central theme. The complicated landscape of Violaine and Catherine’s relationship showed the jagged edges of parent-child relationships, which at times are heartbreaking. On a microscopic level, the novel was a deep examination of the legacies a mother had on her two children, primarily on Violaine. While it resonated with intimate details, the experience was nonetheless universal.

The novel was Violaine’s own reckoning with the legacy of her mother. It dawned on her that to fully appreciate the beauty, Violaine must also embrace the madness that came along with it. The contrasts between beauty and madness were interspersed in the story such as Catherine’s love for ballet despite having a serious limp. She also had a flair for poetry. Further adding a layer to the novel was its exploration of mental health and how it impacts domestic lives, particularly on the parent-child dynamics. One part of the story showed Maman getting treatment. This subtly underscored how mentally ill people will be more receptive to treatment if they understand how their treatment will be performed and, more importantly, that they are going to be treated humanely.

“As for the woman who had existed before giving birth to me, I had no access to her. To me, Catherine could only ever be a work of fiction. So I endowed her with my fantasy of what might have been her history, her thoughts, her choices. Of course, she had told me the story of her life in great and contradictory detail, but to give shape to her I had to imagine her, interpret her. I had to become the narrator of her story in order to give her back her humanity.

~ Violaine Huisman, The Book of Mother

Huisman captured the portrait of domestic life. The complications of parent-child relationships, marriages, and divorces were depicted in the novel. Dark family secrets and histories were also unearthed, covering themes such as betrayal, the complexities of extended families, and the emotional toll of growing up an unwanted child. Despite all these and despite the abuse (although it was never directly referred to as such), the betrayals, the shame, and the suffering, we still see how love is illuminated. All of these elements were carefully woven together into a lush tapestry by Huisman’s incredibly moving prose. With deft hands, she painted an absorbing portrait. It was largely personal but the story resonated on a universal scale.

The Book of Mother was a critical success in Huisman’s native France, bagging prestigious local literary prizes such as the Prix Françoise Saga and the Prix Marie Claire. It was also warmly received by the general public that it renewed the interest in her mother’s book, Saxifrage. In this book was Catherine’s life story recounted through prose poetry. The English translation of the book earned it more admirers and recognition from literary pundits across the globe. It was even longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.

The Book of Mother is a multifaceted literary masterpiece. On the surface, it seemingly appears to be the story of one mother but as one digs deeper, we read the story of a woman who dealt with these disadvantages head-on. Not only was she able to rise above these challenges but she was also able to establish her own name. However, it all came with a price. Traumas of childhood keep surfacing, constantly threatening to shake the boat. It was this shakiness that Violaine and her older sister get to witness growing up. In her debut novel, Violaine Huisman captured the beauty and the madness that can coexist in one person. It is a coming-of-age story about embracing these qualities. Intimate in its detail but universal in its message, The Book of Mother is an emotionally riveting masterpiece

That insane love, that almost intolerable passion for and from two brats who were annoying at almost every age; that boundless love that would outlast everything, transcend everything, forgive everything; the love that led her to call us (when we weren’t little shits, or bitches, or cunts) my adored darlings whom I love madly—that love kept her going for as long as she could.

~ Violaine Huisman, The Book of Mother
Ratings

79%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
20%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
13%

Literary prize longlists definitely provide a wealth of interesting and thought-provoking books. Had it not been for the 2022 International Booker Prize, I would have not encountered Violaine Huisman’s The Book of Mother; of the longlisted books, I have read only two of the thirteen books, Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob and Kawakami’s Heaven. I tried to obtain copies of the other books on the longlist but it was only Huisman’s The Book of Mother that was available. Unfortunately, the book did not make the shortlist; Indian writer Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand was adjudged the winner of the prestigious literary prize. Nevertheless, the book provided me an impressionable experience, with its intimate exploration of the complexities of parent-child relationships. When I started the novel, I didn’t realize that it was Huisman herself who was narrating. From the onset, I was invested and Huisman’s writing was absorbing. Catherine was an interesting character although her story was brimming with melodrama. I was surprised it was a debut novel.

Book Specs

Author: Violaine Huisman
Translator (from French): Leslie Camhi
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: October 2021
Number of Pages: 211
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

A prizewinning tour de force when it was published in France, Violaine Huisman’s remarkable debut novel is about a daughter’s inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother. Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, or “Maman,” smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard, and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn’t have it any other way.

When Maman is hospitalized after a third divorce and a breakdown, everything changes. Violaine and her sister long for their mother’s return, yet, once she’s back, Maman’s violent mood swings and flagrant disregard for personal boundaries turn their home into an emotional minefield. As the story of Catherine’s own traumatic childhood and adolescence unfolds, an indelible portrait emerges of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.

With its fierce language, streak of dark humor, and stunning emotional courage, The Book of Mother is an exquisitely wrought story of a mother’s dizzying heights and devastating lows, and a daughter who must hold her memories close in order to let go, and live.

About the Author

Violaine Huisman was born in 1979 in Paris, France. For the past two decades, Huisman has lived and worked in New York City. In New York City, Huisman ran the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s literary series. She has also organized multidisciplinary arts festivals across the city.

In 2018, Huisman published her debut novel, Fugitive parce que reine. It was an immediate critical success that earned her several literary accolades in her native France, among them including the Prix Françoise Saga and the Prix Marie Claire. In 2021, her debut novel was translated into English as The Book of Mother. The English translation was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.