Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Seahorse by Tania Unsworth

This hauntingly successful portrait of the mother-daughter relationship is a must for all grown up daughters and mothers of grown up daughters.

Following the death of her father, Vanessa West takes her mother Marion on a trip to Ashagiri in India, where Marion grew up. Vanessa is determined that visiting Marion’s childhood haunts will do her mother good and is exasperated by her mother’s failure to enter into the spirit of the adventure. Marion’s reluctance to be done good to is her quiet way of asserting her own identity.
In the end it is the efficient Vanessa who comes unstuck in India while her apparently dithering mother reveals an inner strength.

The Seahorse, American author Unsworth’s first novel, is a hugely intelligent exploration of the nature of memory, of identity, of our yearning yet inability to connect with others.
Where it excels, however, is in encompassing all the emotions that make the mother daughter relationship so powerful: the guilt, dislike, love, disdain, the best intentions, the longing to prove oneself, the misunderstandings. Marion and Vanessa are revealed in both their own eyes and each other’s. Each wants the trip to be a success for the other but without grasping what the other wants.

Unsworth achieves this with the slightest, deftest of strokes.

“Why are you being mean?”
Vanessa wasn’t sure, but she suspected that it had something to do with her mother’s handbag. It was large and rather shiny. Snakeskin with a jaunty silver buckle holding it shut....
“You just don’t take a handbag to India.” Vanessa regarded the neat nylon pouch strapped around her own waist with satisfaction. When she looked at it, it reminded her that she was, after all , in control.

He turned round and smiled at them. An ordinary sort of face, in Vanessa’s opinion. Pale, very English.
Marion beamed at him. “You must sit down with us,” she said, before Vanessa had a chance to prevent her with a look.
Did her mother have to be so... enthusiastic? As if this young man was saving them from a completely joyless evening.

“I can’t believe you brought a bed jacket,”. Vanessa said.
“I thought I might want to sit up in bed and read.”
Vanessa said nothing. She had to admit that the bed jacket, although bulky and somewhat ridiculous, was useful...Vanessa felt suddenly protective. How vulnerable her mother seemed. During the entire day, the much imagined day of their arrival in Ashagiri, she had recognised little but the dessert they had been served for dinner. It hardly seemed worth their journey.
“Tomorrow we’ll see the mountains,” she said . “We’ll find stuff. I know we will.”

Vanessa’s mother, however, does not want her daughter’s protection any more than she wants to be shepherded to her old school or family home. In the end it is Vanessa herself who needs protecting, not least from herself.

The appearance of one of Marion’s schoolfriends in Ashagiri provides the story with mystery and the host of secondary characters, from the local Indians to the inevitable back packers, are delightfully drawn and temper the emotional power of the novel with light relief.

by Miranda Ingram
Published in the November Rendezvous, 2008

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