Tuesday 6 December 2016

All That I Leave Behind - a mother who abandons her children

All That I Leave Behind, Alison Walsh, Hachette Books 2015, €15.99

Published 06/07/2015 | 02:30

All That I Leave Behind
All That I Leave Behind

Tolstoy told us, "All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", but what of the families, the vast majority I suspect, who are a tangled mix of both? What of mothers who are guiltily ambivalent about the role that is thrust upon them by a society that still insists the burden of childcare is their responsibility? Are women like Nora, from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, who leaves her children behind in order to live her life, an anomaly? (When this play was released, it was so controversial that the famous actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe said she would only play the part of Nora if the ending was changed.) Do all mothers have to be martyrs to their husbands and children, no matter what?

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In her 2010 tour de force, In My Mother's Shoes, Alison Walsh tackled the lives of three Irish mothers - her grandmother, mother and herself - with sympathy, verve, intelligence and much hilarity. She ended it by noting that for mothers, "equality is shunned for domestic stability - in marriage as in life, we can't have it all" - certainly a much debated and controversial topic. The book deservedly became a number 1 best-seller, and Irish women (and men?) like myself have been eagerly awaiting her follow-up.

Now it has arrived and we are not disappointed. For in her new book and first novel, All That I Leave Behind, Walsh deftly and sympathetically tackles that taboo subject of the mother who abandons her children. The prologue begins with the story of Michelle who, we discover, abandoned her children many years earlier; "Mary-Pat, June, Pius and my little Rosie - and yet brought them with me in my heart, where I could never let them go". This, she tells us, "is my punishment".

Then we are in 2012, Rosie and her husband-to-be, a dour American vet, have returned from the USA to the family homestead, to prepare for their upcoming nuptials. The other siblings have had their own problems coming to terms with the loss of their mother. Pius has suffered a nervous breakdown and his life has stalled. He roams around the family home, surrounded by newspapers he will never read. Mary-Pat, the eldest at 43, is bitter and tight, ("[she] felt a wave of jealousy so strong it almost choked her"); the sibling who shouldered the responsibilities of a mother when Michelle abandoned them. June is living the life she feels she always deserved, as a reward for her sufferings. Her husband, a successful DJ, allows her to live a life of ease and wealth - but it cannot fully ease the anger of her loss (or the secret she holds). The story features flashbacks to the life of Michelle, separated from her children, living life in a hot distant land. Extraordinarily, we feel empathy for her decision, despite the continual effect her loss has on her children. And on herself. And then there is the revelation, the secret at the heart of the family, that is revealed at Rosie's wedding.

This is a story, beautifully told, of four very different interpretations of childhood experiences of loss and of what happens when societal norms are upended; when a father betrays his wife, when a mother leaves her children. It shows the difficulties of attempting to escape from the boxes we - and others - place ourselves into when young, of how hard it can be to understand what others are experiencing. As Michelle notes: "Maybe we can never really know another person: we are all a mystery to each other".

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