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The mother who, according to Lucy’s memory, frequently struck her and allowed her to goto school dirty, who never demonstrated any affection, and who commented, when Lucy’s teenage breasts began to develop, that she looked ‘like one of the cows in Pedersons’ barn’ – this inhuman mother has flown to her sickbed now and brings Lucy comfort, stories, shared laughter and the blessing of sleep. The mother cannotrecall the old truck, and she knows Lucy’s fear of snakes is ‘silly’. By an extraordinary balancing act, Strout creates a sympathetic narrator who may well be unreliable, but who knows it. Many of her experiences are not confirmed by those around her. Is this false memory? Can the mother really be unaware of her daughter’s wretchedness as a child? And this happy jokey dialogue in hospital – would this even be possible if the past had been so bleak?Lucy becomes a writer and, after her daughters leave home, divorces her husband. Her girls are very angry. Neither will visit her flat; they always stay with their father and stepmother. Lucy cannot understand why they are so angry, and she wants desperately to be needed by them – just as (the reader must conclude) her own mother wantedto be needed by Lucy. But Lucy forged a life of her own. She is not a victim: she is ruthless (a word applied to her by a friend, and then acknowledged in amazement by Lucy herself ). In narrating her own story, she has taken on board the injunction of her writing tutor: ‘This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right’.Lucy does not protect herself. She adduces every tiny scrap of evidence of the kindness ofteenaged brother to walk the main street wearing bra and high heels, and driven alongside him screaming ‘Faggot!’, she notes that the father lay down beside the sobbing son and wept with him. She sets out the puzzle of family relationships, of love and loss and cruelty and kindness, without offering an interpretation or faking a conclusion. Because every participant lives a different story. Strout is ‘naming’ daughters and mothers, and mothers and daughters, in a way which deepens my understanding of my own experience in both roles.On the same theme, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (2016) presents another narrating daughter, whose invalid mother may or may not be a hypochondriac, and whose illness has put her daughter’s life into limbo. But is Sophia her mother’s victim? Or is it the other way round? How well does either of them actually understand or control what they are doing? How far, in fact, do their identities merge? Rose’s illness at times paralyses Sophia’s legs. Levy is ‘naming’ mothers and daughters, she is ‘naming’ womanhood and running rings around the notion of victimhood by subjecting it to meltdown in the scorching heat of a Spanish summer.So: if we want to ‘name’ ourselves better,more perceptively, more honestly, what canwe learn from these writers? I think maybe the starting point is to acknowledge the stereotypes we reach for, and then work ruthlessly to expose both the bad and the good, the truth and thelies, within them. I plan to take the advice of the writing tutor in My Name is Lucy Barton: ‘If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right’. ■TRY THIs► Write the story of Hanseland Gretel from the point of view of the witch; or the story of Cinderella from the perspective of one of the ugly sisters. Tryto generate empathy for your narrator.► Write your mother’s version of a conflict in your own childhood.► Write a dialogue scene between a husband and wife of 20 years, and don’t allow either of them to be the victim.‘This is a story about a mother who lovesher daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly’her parents. After her father has forced hermslexia Mar/Apr/May 2017 43IMAGE: FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTRE

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