A lost mother, a lost world; BOOK REVIEW

The Scent of Dried Roses Tim Lott Viking, pounds 16

Related Topics
In 1988 Lott's 57-year-old mother, Jean, committed suicide; an act for which no one in the family was remotely prepared. If anyone might have been expected to do so, it would have been Tim himself, who had slowly and painfully emerged from a black hole of depression a year previously. What does the death of a mother do to a family? Lott draws his breath in pain like a modern Hamlet and backtracks through time and space to tell Jean's story, his own, and those of his brothers, uncles, aunts and friends.

The exercise is salutary, by turns moving and amusing. At first Lott finds himself struggling with "a snakepit of narratives that compete, and eclipse each other, then slide mutely back into darkness". Gradually, like the meaningless pieces of a jigsaw turning into a picture, he makes a sort of sense of an act that will always feel astonishingly cruel to those you leave behind. But, as Lott knows from his own experience, "anyone who can feel so little for themselves that they want to die is hardly capable of feeling for others. Which, of course, is why life becomes so absolutely without reward."

Lott educates himself in the nature of depression, the chicken or egg debate between sociologists, psychologists and psychoanalysts as to its nature and cause. Freud defined depression as an act of anger, an attempt to destroy something or someone that some moral imperative in your head prevents you from even admitting that you hate. Geneticists point out that a tendency to depression can be traced through particular families. Biochemists identify change in the body chemistry and talk of it as some sort of virus.

But how do we explain the dramatic rise in suicide rates in Western society in the last 100 years or so? Durkheim's view that depression is a cultural product, a reflection of a person's loss of a sense of place, of identity, is what makes most sense to Lott. "To lose your fixed point of reference, at whatever level, is to be in danger of losing your mind. By the time of her death, he concludes, Jean had almost completely lost the world she grew up in, a world of certainties in which a good wife and mother was a person of consequence. From being somewhere to be proud of, Southall was a place where, as she wrote in her painfully frank suicide note, she could "only see decay". She killed herself just after her last son, Jimmy, left home for good.

In quarrying his personal family history, Lott details social change in the once fashionable west London subtopia of Southall with the accuracy of a pointilliste. The wider value of this intimate, funny, tragic book is this brilliant, quasi-Orwellian analysis of the condition of England during Jean's lifetime. For Jean's tragedy goes beyond the personal. Her death spotlights the 10- or even 20-year vacuum that exists in the lives of so many women - and an increasing number of men - in their mid-fifties who, though far too energetic merely to put their feet up, have no status from a paid job, whose grandchildren are postponed or remote, and who for one reason or another lack the self-confidence to carve out a new place for themselves in a rapidly changing social world. We all need a satisfying - and quite possibly constantly changing - story to make sense of our lives. Lott quotes Graham Swift's Waterland: "Man is a story- telling animal. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right." The compelling force of our need to know where we come from in order to make sense of where we are going is reflected in the fact that Lott is far from being alone in excavating a personal past. John Mortimer has voyaged around his father; Germaine Greer has told how Daddy hardly knew her. Such explorations are all no doubt pleasurably cathartic for their authors. What determines whether they elicit weariness or sympathy in those of us who ponder the meaning of our lives in privacy and by analogy is the degree to which they have what Saul Bellow calls "the signature of the soul". In this respect, The Scent of Dried Roses is breathtakingly powerful.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Advisor - (HR, L&D) - Rugby

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and well established busi...

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea