In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

Normal Families?

 - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Two excellent books I've read recently, Sleeping Arrangements, by Laura Shaine Cunningham, and The Mistress's Daughter by AM Homes, are both about missing, or errant, fathers and the children they fathered.
AM Homes always knew she was adopted. It wasn't a secret, but a mystery she wanted to unfold. In later life she was sought out by her birth mother, and then she found her birth father-neither in a particularly satisfactory way. This is an angry book; one reviewer has described it as 'seething'-a very apt description. But Homes' anger is well-founded-the more she discovers about her advent, the more there is to seethe about. Her mother was her father's 17 year old mistress, and her birth undeniably set her mother on a very rocky path, while the father remained untouched by the problem. When Homes does meet her birth mother in her 30s, the relationship is strange and strained, but the author's acute observations and blunt language bring humour and pathos to the situation, making me uncomfortable, but intrigued. Homes' 2012 novel May We Be Forgiven-a bizarre, and funny, portrayal of a fractured family that eventually achieves a version of redemption-also has the trenchant, but unforgiving tone of The Mistress's Daughter.
Laura Shaine Cunningham never met her father. Lost in WW2, he took on mythological proportions-a shadowy image on a faded photo that Lily (the author's childhood name) and her mother would gaze at with longing (the photo itself was elusive as they kept misplacing it). Lily and her mother stayed with relatives, sleeping on floors, ready to move any minute-all their possessions could be folded away for ease of carrying-until finally they moved into a block of apartments, the AnaMor Towers.
Cunningham sets the scenes for all the dramas of her childhood against almost mythological back drops. Her whole neighbourhood is reminiscent of a 1920s movie backlot: the 'biblical' Yankee stadium, the Babylonian foyers, the wide avenues reminiscent of Parisian streets, and the creepy dark part of the park. Although she is loved and cared for by her mother, the time she spends unsupervised with her friends, roaming the streets, (and they are only 5 years old) is absolutely hair raising. Sadly the author's mother dies, but happily her two unmarried uncles, Len and Gabe (a private eye and a librarian), move into the apartment and take care of her.
The tone of the story changes at this point, and becomes even more more interesting. The uncles are eccentric, but devoted, and the calm but definite way they resolve the problems that arise is extraordinary to say the least. Lily grieves for her mother, and has ongoing anxiety that she will be taken away from her uncles and put into care, and she goes to extreme lengths to stop this happening. 
Their extended family is also unusual. When someone dies, the older members of the family are often told that they have just moved interstate. When a relative really does move to California, the move is regarded suspiciously, and presumed to be a cover up for demise. Lily's grandmother doesn't acknowledge the death of her own daughter; she just tells everyone that she has moved to Washington following a job opportunity.
The story changes again when the author's grandmother comes to live with Lily and her uncles, and the household again reconfigures. Unburdened by all domestic challenges, the grandmother can devote herself to writing the many volumes of her memoirs, with the 9 year old Lily as her (paid) editor. Her grandmother steals her clothes, her jewellery and trinkets, but eventually they negotiate a truce, and they learn to live in harmony (luckily, as they share a bedroom).
This is one of the funniest, surprising and heartfelt memoirs I have read. It's a very significant reminder that all families have their own culture, and a family can be many things, and have many incarnations. When her Uncle Gabe speculates about what goes on in a normal family, her grandmother declares 'No family is better than mein family', and her Uncle Len muses 'Are there any normal families?' Very true. Louise Pfanner