Have You Been Good?: A Memoir By Vanessa Nicolson - book review: An affecting memoir of grief, loneliness and dysfunction

Rather than dwell on her already well-documented dysfunctional English ancestors, Nicolson turns a dispassionate eye to her mother

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The Independent Culture

Vanessa Nicolson describes her new memoir as a story "about coming from an unusual, privileged background but craving an ordinary family life, and how this was sabotaged by my daughter's death".

Her background is certainly unusual, even by aristocratic standards. Her grandparents were the gardeners and writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, both of whom were gay, and her father was the homosexual art historian Ben Nicolson. Vanessa, born in 1956, was only five when her formidable grandmother died, but she grew up in the shadow of her family's notoriety and success.

Rather than dwell on her already well-documented dysfunctional English ancestors, Nicolson turns a dispassionate eye to her mother, Luisa Vertova, a brilliant but frosty Italian connoisseur whose brief marriage to Ben was a meeting of well-bred minds rather than of sexual attraction. When Vanessa was six her mother took her to live in Florence and the destructive dynamic of their relationship became established. "Have you been good?" the distant and intimidating Luisa would ask her daughter, before allowing her to look in her handbag for a present, which might or might not be there.

Where this book moves on from the numerous accounts of life among the Sackville-Wests/Nicolsons is that Vanessa came of age after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and her descriptions of the disapproval she provoked in her outwardly bohemian family are revealing. When her mother discovered that Vanessa had lost her virginity, aged just 14, she erupted. "You're ruined! Do you understand that? You will be rejected from society, you will walk down Bond Street with whore branded on your back."

After her lonely childhood, bouts of depression, four abortions and several suicide attempts, you can see why Vanessa craved an ordinary life, and harboured the desire to create a warm and loving family of her own. The tragedy is that we know from the beginning of this book that her daughter, Rosa, has died. We just don't know how or why. Interwoven with Nicolson's own history is the story of Rosa, a beautiful girl (there are several touching photos of her among the well-edited illustrations) who suffered from epilepsy and anorexia. When her death comes, aged 19, the cruel circumstances make it almost too heartbreaking to read.

You finish this beautifully written, highly affecting memoir feeling that Vanessa Nicolson hasn't always been good, but wishing above all else that her mother, still alive at 94, could open her handbag now and, finally, give her the gift of love.