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Someone Not Really Her Mother

ISBN 0525947930

By Harriet Scott Chessman
Review by: Sonali T. Sikchi


The first time I encountered anyone with Alzheimer's disease was in Dame Judi Densch's portrayal of Iris Murdoch in the movie Iris. While we observe all the frightening ramifications of the disease, we always see Iris from the outside. In Hannah's character, Chessman flips that perspective on its head and shows us the frightening, muddled world that inhabits the cranium of a person with Alzheimer's disease.

"All of them talk quickly" -- Hannah's world is decelerating, moving at the speed of her comprehension. "She feels herself slipping out of this present [...] where she's sure she held knowledge, like a bird, in the palms of her hands." This self-knowledge of one's dementia must be one of the most agonizing sufferings inflicted by the disease.

The story charts the progress of the disease by traveling backward through the layers of Hannah's memories as they disappear one by one, from the most recent to the oldest: her granddaughters, her daughter, her husband who died soon after World War II, the loss of her Jewish family at Drancy and Auschwitz, her younger sister Emma and her beloved cat Auguste at Rouen. Hannah also starts losing her second language, the language of her adulthood, reverting more and more to the French of her childhood.

Poetry brought Hannah and her husband Russell Pearl together; a landmine separated them forever. And despite being very young, in a new country, not knowing English very well, nor having much money to her name, she makes a life for herself and her daughter Miranda, first in England and then in the U.S.

"Is one safer if one is ignorant?" All her adult life, Hannah spent trying to forget the horrific tragedy of her past, but the shadows come to visit her in her twilight. And as these unbidden memories surface, her daughter Miranda and her granddaughters Fiona and Ida learn more and more about the woman who has always been in their lives. In one sense she is slipping away, and in another sense she is giving more of herself to them.

Despite the encroaching plaque on her brain, Hannah clearly sees what no one else took the time to see: Ida beleaguered by love, at once "douce et triste." This is knowledge that is not a product of memory, but one she discerns with all her senses; thus, it is not a lost ability.

She perceives the changes wrought in her granddaughter Fiona after her son Seamus's birth as the same ones wrought in herself at Miranda's birth: unbounded love, and a determination to protect, nurture and shower with happiness. And the certainty of having accomplished those goals means that "...sometimes happiness enters in a rush of light, as if through a doorway one had not known was there."

Chessman delicately teases out strand after strand of connections across the generations of this family, as in the instance when Hannah identifies the Yiddish baby song Fiona is singing to Seamus as the same one her own mother sang to her as a child.

The language and prose style are achingly lovely. Like the pear tart Hannah remembers from her childhood in Rouen, the story unfolds -- delicately, with a tartness and sweetness that will linger in the memory long after the last page has been turned. Unlike "Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper," the French phrases in this story flow naturally and appropriately into the English narrative.

I consider Harriet Scott Chessman to be a major talent, a writer who never wastes my time. She has a towering ability to make each of her works matter, and she has never resorted to showy prose. She makes me live her story; her work is everything I have always loved about books.

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