Book review / The trip of the iceberg

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski, Granta, pounds 14.99
Jenny Diski's autobiographical Skating to Antarctica is rather like Hitchcock's film Suspicion. Someone has a memory of something they are trying to forget, which makes them compulsive about anything to do with the circumstances of the trauma. With snow (Diski's theme), what others perceive as an irrational fear has a core of meaning to it. When confronted, it begins to heal.

Diski reveals a love of whiteness, of blank spaces and of ice. She describes ice-skating, alienation and a mother who is both present and absent. With unusual candour, Diski unbandages an unusual relationship with her mother in a real and metaphorical voyage through ice.

While actually sailing to Antarctica - with bird watchers and bored tourists - she unravels her own childhood. She takes us from her grooming as a child skater to life in an empty flat with her hysterical mother, and then to spells in the clinical whiteness of mental wards - first for her mother, then herself. The absence of Diski's mother is the tip of the iceberg.

The prose drifts in and out of a dry essay style, breezy commentary, and telling it how it was. For all these shifts, what Diski has to say about her parents has a poignancy that rises above her literary irritability. Even where the ice is thinnest, it still supports the weight of her writing.

Diski began life in London "with parents who were cash rich". That took care of her mother's desperate need to display wealth. "Of all things in her life, I was the best medium for her display". "When the money dried up," she writes, "my mother struggled heroically to maintain my appearance - the white gloves were the last thing to go. But eventually, the money, the credit and my father all ran out for good and at the same time." By the age of 11, Diski and her mother lived in "an empty shell, with everything including my books, though not the white gloves, taken away by the bailiffs, and we were waiting to be evicted".

Later, Diski decides that "in order to find out if my mother was alive or dead, I would have to open the box. Miraculously, my mother had climbed into the box and closed the lid herself." She doesn't want to lift that lid. We cruise around her mother's tantrums and tears, observing her through the lens of her daughter's memory. Our binoculars are passed from hand to hand round a chorus of elderly Jewish neighbours dredging up the dirt, not only on Diski's mother but on her father too. "He was a charmer, but he was a confidence man ..."

True to her character, it is Diski's mother who grabs centre-stage. She was "frightening in her reactions ... Her bitterness and lack of control caused me anxiety and worse, but I don't think it was done with deliberate malice ... She was sad rather than bad". Diski recalls that "living with her, day by day, was like skating on newly formed ice. It constantly shattered, every day, but there was no alternative, no other place to go. No room for anger, but no room for affection either."

Jennifer, the small child in white gloves, skated round and round the ice rink. As an adult, she gathers memories with random thoughts and observations into this book. She says of the trip to Antarctica that "I didn't plan this journey as a pilgrimage of any kind, just as a hopeful voyage into whiteness". In spite of all the searching for emptiness, there is a lot of clutter here. Occasionally the pond clogs and entangles the reader. As with someone clearing a room who can't bear to throw anything out, a new disorder grows out of the ordering. Yet Diski has cut a hole in the ice; and the voice that predominates calls out from under it, remembering in a memorable way.