The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Danny was fifteen when his father died and Andrea turfed him out. It came as a shock to both the children that he’d signed over the large house and his thriving real-estate business to his wife. Danny was left with nothing but an educational trust fund set up for him and his two step-sisters and Maeve is determined that he will take the lion’s share. So he’s packed off to an expensive boarding school and from there to undertake a lengthy training in medicine.
Their early abandonment and shared injustice has created a strong bond between the siblings and, although Danny marries and has children of his own, there’s little space for anyone else. A ritual developed in the aftermath of their initial exile becomes a shared addiction: over the months and years and decades they frequently drive to their old neighbourhood and chew the cud outside the lavish mansion they once called home. What is it exactly that draws them back, and is it the same for both?
Built for a cigarette manufacturer in the early 1920s, the house in small-town Pennsylvania is known as Dutch because of former owners, rather than for its style. When the last remaining member of the family died in the 1950s, Maeve and Danny’s father, newly rich on a property deal, snapped it up with complete with fittings and furnishings which somehow stayed – although they did manage to get rid of the raccoons, and their fleas, that had taken over the third-floor ballroom. Other than that, the house is a constant and only people change.
I discovered Ann Patchett’s fiction first through her Orange Prize winning Bel Canto – still one of my all-time favourite novels – and I’ve read four of her other six since then. From my, albeit incomplete, reading of her oeuvre, I’m judging The Dutch House her second best. On the surface, a story of broken families, it addresses how perspectives change between people and over time. In particular, it asks how we best recover from a childhood in which one of life’s building blocks went missing, or was absent from the start. How do we find a path between denial that it matters and turning the grievance into a grudge that takes over our life? Thanks to publishers Bloomsbury for my review copy.
In his refusal to accept that his lack of a mother matters – the attitude that, never having known her, he can’t miss her – Danny reminded me of Steve, the narrator of my own novel, Underneath. Steve has never known his father and his mother’s depression renders her emotionally unavailable when he’s a baby. But Steve’s denial of the psychological implications is much more damaging than Danny’s.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Dumped on a father she barely knows, Tru plays soccer in the intervals between waiting for a phone call that never comes. In a society with strict gender codes, she’s shunned by her classmates for being the wrong type of girl. She’s also a disappointment to her stepmother who, with three boys already, agrees to the arrangement only for the chance to nurture the child’s femininity. When – after a single Christmas card in over ten years – Tru receives something from her mother, it’s the last thing she wants.
Patsy’s character would make a great group discussion: can an abandoning mother ever be excused? Still an adolescent when she became pregnant, and with abortion illegal, Patsy was forced into a role for which she wasn’t ready and didn’t want. Poverty, guilt, and disappointment that migration hasn’t brought the outcome she hoped for, contribute to her neglect of her child.
Despite an interesting premise, fine writing and an insight into an unfamiliar world, my reading experience of Patsy was like the eponymous character’s experience of New York, albeit in diluted form, and like Tru’s in longing for something that didn’t come. I wanted more depth and less length – imagining the author telling her publisher she tried to write a shorter novel but didn’t have time – as I waited for the wow moment I’d had with her debut Here Comes the Sun. Thanks to Oneworld for my review copy.
 There's also a short story about an undocumented migrant in my short story collection, Becoming Someone, mentioned above.
 As I wrote in this post On Underneath’s first birthday, I’m confessing a guilty secret underneath, an often neglected argument in favour of easy access to abortion is that the children of reluctant mothers can suffer psychologically too.
 For another recently-published novel on migration, see Helon Habila’s Travellers
Gender identity is a central theme of my Polari-prize[*] shortlisted debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which you can read about in this post: Gender: Like God and the square root of minus one?.
[*] I met an interesting man at an event recently who said he was keen to learn the Polari language, even though there are apparently no longer any native speakers. To my shame, it wasn't until this conversation that I discovered that its roots go way back, and beyond the LGBTQ communities.
The new flash fiction challenge to write a 99-word story about an interlude made me think of my short story “In the Interim “ but “Peace-and-Quiet Pancake”, although about attachment to fathers rather than mothers, is a better fit with the overall theme of this post. (Both available to read for free as they aren’t included in my short story collection, Becoming Someone, not because I don’t like the stories, but because they’re not good match for the identity theme.)
The attachment system has evolved to improve our survival chances as a species that is totally dependent on others from birth. Responsive parents provide the experience of soothing and model coping with threat. Parents who don’t respond to a baby’s cry, or do so in an aggressive or highly anxious way themselves, inadvertently teach the child that their distress is unmanageable and that they are beyond help.
Research psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed an ingenious method of assessing whether or not an infant has developed secure attachments. In the Strange Situation, babies play in a comfortable room until, at a given signal, the mother leaves. What distinguishes securely from insecurely attached infants, is not how they behave when the mother (or other primary carer) leaves, but whether they are able to settle on her return.
While it’s virtually impossible to write from the point of view of a one-year-old, I’ve had a bash in my flash.
The playroom’s made of cuddles and bright shiny colours. Choo-choo trains and farm animals and smiling dolls. Mummy’s teddy kicks a ball to me. When my teddy goes to kick it back, she’s gone.
The playroom’s made of sharp hurty edges and darkness. Witches and goblins and things that make me jump when they go bang. Why did Mummy leave me? What did I do wrong?
The door opens, bringing Mummy’s smell, her flowery dress, her outstretched arms. Is it the Good Mummy who shoos away the monsters? Or is it the Bad Mummy who’s one of them herself?