A lost mother, a lost world; BOOK REVIEW

The Scent of Dried Roses Tim Lott Viking, pounds 16

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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.

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