There are some wonderful personal photographs in this beautiful family story but the one that sticks in my mind is at the end. It shows a somewhat bleak kitchen but in the corner by the window sits Nicholas Royle’s mother on a chair leaning on the formica table. In some ways this place was the centre of her world and Kathleen Royle was the centre of her son’s life. Tragically her other son, Simon, died in 1986 of cancer. As a nurse she continued her caring role, with hands on all she came across to soothe, caress and in her last years search. Because Kathleen realises ‘she is losing her marbles’ and this growing knowledge haunts this memoir.
Royle is a wonderful author. Poetic, personal, photographically intimate. The whole book is haunting, but it is not tragic.
Royle shares the joy of family life. Mrs Royle, a well known local nurse (who even attended David Attenborough’s family) she was a marvellously no -nonsense woman, she reads widely (those times of poetry and novels seeping through to Nicholas in his future career). But she is also outspoken – cursing the local fox hunters when they live in Devon and even, it is hinted at, sharing some flirting (if not more) with quite a few men.
My mother died when I was 15 and there is not a day that has gone by since that I have not missed her. I do sometimes begrudge those who have their mothers for many more years and then feel such tragic grief. Surely my early bereavement is more emotive? Of course it isn’t . Each family has its tragedies and different generations have had much to face.
Royle talks of his mother and sister Marion with such care when during the war they were separated from their own parents. Did post war parenting prove more difficult or did the memory of life and death in a world wide sense remove the emotional insularity of family loss? The utter shock of her son’s death seems to trigger in Kathleen a differing approach. Does that also trigger her dementia? As children are we all guilty of viewing our own parents differently as we ourselves grow up, move, become parents, and perhaps spend less time directly with those who have brought us up.
Royle is a Professor of English at the University of Sussex (where I came across his skilful teaching when I studied for my MA) so I knew this was going to be an expertly written book. However being a good writer doesn’t always translate to providing your own memoir beyond a sentimental scene telling day by day depiction.
This book will pull you in as a reader. There is much to share. What a shame Mrs Royle was not around to once again sit at her chair by the formica table and read it herself. She would surely have been very proud.
Superb personal read. Book clubs will have much to explore of family relationships and what they might leave behind to their own sons and daughters.
Philipa Coughlan 5/4*
MOTHER A Memoir by Nicholas Royle
978-1-912408-57-3 New Internationalist Publications Myriad Editions Paperback February 2020