Book review: The book of daughters and forgetting

Remind Me Who I Am, Again by Linda Grant Granta, pounds 14.99
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
For a nice Jewish girl to write a memoir such as this is a shock. Thankfully, Linda Grant, in the tradition of her American Jewish brothers, liberates a rich Eastern-European Jewish legacy buried in recent middle- class English values. The problem is that she is on an archaeological mission - excavating a buried land that exists only in the dying brain cells of her mother's dementia, and the search seems hopeless.

What is her family history? Even the original name (anglicised into Grant) is a mystery. Was her father really called Ginzburg? Or was the name picked up from another tenant's rent book? Was "Ginzburg" invented because Jews in the Pale always had a reason to hide from the state? The Ginzburg/Grants, like so many immigrants, turned to self-invention as a means of survival. But lies to the state spill into the family.

As a teenager, Grant is marked by a phone call from a half-sister she didn't know existed. Nobody had bothered to tell young Linda that her father had a first wife. Lies and fantasy are the fabric of her youth, and probing the forbidden leads to yet more half-remembered stories. "Without the past we're nothing," she writes.

But which past, and in whose memory? There is a story of a rape back in the old country. Was it incest, a pogrom or yet another fantasy? The only area which is not fantasy is the heaving, groaning earth of Babi Yar, filled with the bodies of family members murdered by the Nazis. That the Grant/ Ginzburgs remember only too well.

The shadow of the Old Country is passed on to haunt the next generation. Grant potently evokes the two parallel universes. Images of Poland, Russia or Lithuania darken her sunny adolescent days of Liverpool Beatlemania. Like so many children of immigrants, she experienced "the trick of being in two places and realities at once".

Grant charts her family's speedy rise in the get-rich-quick boom years of the late Fifties and Sixties and within this comfortable background, she holds up her mother's behaviour for critical examination. Do I love my mother? Grant agonises at one moment, only too aware that her book breaks the biggest taboo of Jewish life, exposing a parent to ridicule and public shame.

Honour thy father and mother, Jews tell their children - but Grant reveals Rose as a vapid woman who loved being a spoilt young wife yet had no idea how to care for her daughters. In one incident, she remembers Rose's refusal to provide sewing material for her in primary school. When ugly patterned cotton was finally thrown at young Linda, the rest of the class despised the tackiness of the fabric and smelt out that this girl's mother didn't give a damn. A neglected daughter holds such a moment for the rest of her life.

Grant writes laterally. She starts with the only way that mother and daughter connect: through the public act of shopping, where the Holy Grail is Good Taste. From the banality of matching colours, Grant travels through Rose's life, examining her youth, the success of her marriage and the journey from solitary widowhood to the indignity of being put in a "home". Moving from the personal to the scientific, she discovers that memory is not housed in the brain; which provokes her to personify memory as the "Wandering Jew" of our bodies. Her talent lies in the ability to move from suburbia to metaphysics and, organically, to unite them.

Comments