There will be very few who deny that the mother has a very special place in the heart of a person and that when she dies, it uses to be a particularly painful loss in most cases even if she has been suffering for a long time. It means the irrevocable end of an era – of “childhood” in a wide sense – since even the last remaining bond is cut and we can no longer submit like a child to her loving care if we feel like it. After the death of her mother, the renowned French author of autobiographical prose Annie Ernaux (born 1940) set out to trace the course of life of the woman who brought her into life and raised her. The result is A Woman’s Story first published in 1989, a touching literary portrait of a strong and powerful woman who was more than just the author’s mother.
The slim book begins in the morning of 7 April 1986, when Annie Ernaux receives a phone call from the nursing home of the hospital in Pontoise where her mother has died after breakfast. Although her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1980s and her condition has been constantly deteriorating since moving her to the nursing home became inevitable, death arrives unexpected. Now the author’s last living connection with her childhood is gone which makes her feel as if her roots had been cut off. Only after a first period of shock and mourning, she finds the strength to sit down and pay her literary tribute to her mother as she did for her late father before (»»» read my review of award-winning A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany).
Skilfully combining biographical and historical facts, anecdotes passed on in the family, own memories, conclusions and contemplations the author resurrects the picture of a woman born as forth child of six into a poor, but proud working-class family in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy in the early years of the twentieth century. She leaves school aged eleven and works in the factory always dreaming of a better life. Then she meets her future husband originating from a humble family like herself and working in the same factory. She gets married, has a first daughter and saves money to make her and her husband’s dream of a little café and grocery shop come true. This is in the 1930s and great grief is around the corner. Her little girl dies from diphtheria, Nazi-German troops occupy France, war rages in the country. Then a ray of light: another daughter – the author – is born to her in 1940. Things change for the better after the war, but she and her husband need to work hard to give their daughter a better start into life than they had. The girl studies at university, becomes a teacher, marries a bourgeois… and moves away. In 1967 her husband dies suddenly. Three years later she goes to live with her daughter’s family first in Annecy, then in Paris. But eventually, she feels the urge to return to Yvetot which she does in the mid-1970s.
The book isn’t a biography in the strict sense nor a memoir, but an homage to an exceptional woman and the different sides of her character that the daughter hardly noticed while she was alive. Moreover, it’s just the simple, even ordinary story of the ups and downs of a French mother’s life in the twentieth century that Annie Ernaux retells with great sensitivity and a certain nostalgia blending with the inevitable sorrow of a person who writes about a loved one who just died. This doesn’t mean that the tone of the book is whining or depressing – not at all! It goes without saying that it’s not a cheerful read either, but it’s quiet and contemplative as befits this kind of text. Highly recommended for reading!
A Woman's Story - Annie Ernaux,Tanya Leslie
Original French edition:
Une Femme (Poche) - Annie Ernaux
Gesichter einer Frau - Annie Ernaux