Published by Granta
UK Publication Date 1.9.2008 (Pre-released at the Edinburgh Book Festival 23.08.2008)
It’s been too long since the release of Clara. (6 years!) So, when news filtered through that Janice Galloway was releasing something new at the EBF, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be there, would purchase it and that everything could go hang until I had read it. Thus the Galloway event became my last event. Nothing could possibly follow it.
How right I was. The wow factor started the moment Galloway entered the auditorium. Dolled up to the nines in 1950′s garb – lino-piercing stilletos, fishnet tights, a loud floral confection of a frock, black lace gloves (removed for the reading), single-string pearl necklace, long flowing tresses and immaculate makeup- she had come dressed in homage to Cora, her elder sister. Cora, the woman-hating, man-loving bully and the beast, who declares “there is no excuse for an ugly woman” in this the first volume of her memoirs. The child, Janice, has an inferiority complex, inheriting her looks from her father. However, Cora’s lessons in dolling oneself up, have taken – Galloway, in working class parlance, had scrubbed up well!
The entrance grabbed the audience’s attention and the 30-minute reading that followed held it spellbound as a door opened on Galloway’s unpromising childhood in Saltcoats, Ayrshire. Living alone with her mother, who had left her husband preferring the loneliness of life without him to the loneliness of life with him. Sharing a small cubby-hole of a room with her mother, until Cora returned, abandoning her husband and son. The stuff of deprivation and rural poverty but told with humour that evidences Galloway’s refusal to slip into the mentality of victimhood.
The villain of the piece, Cora (it’s no accident that the memoir is published after her death) doesn’t “do domestic”. The mother does. Fetching and carrying and being put on by her eldest daughter and accepting servitude and abuse that she wouldn’t accept from her husband. On the dustjacket the child, Janice, sits between a caterer (her mother) and a warrior (her sister), observing, deciding on which side of the fence she will land.
The volume was originally planned to conclude at the end of her teenage years. Yet, using photographs and anecdotes from people known to her, Galloway found herself on page 53 at the age of four. I find this amazing, considering I have no memories prior to the age of 4 (1st memory being the assassination of JFK). “Is it memory? Is it fiction” was one question from the audience. Galloway said she honestly didn’t know. Most of the text is prompted by photographs. Galloway spoke on a photograph taken at the age of 3. She is sitting on a bike, a stuffed dove on her shoulders, a backdrop of Austria behind her. The setup indicative of how her mother wanted to make things appear as though they were better off. What is interesting is that beyond the photograph on the dustjacket, there are no others included in the book. It’s as though the reader is being asked to choose between the fiction and the fact.
In the best traditions of literary fiction, there is clearly a theme running throughout. The confusion, terror and absurdity of not knowing during childhood. The child, Janice, is an observer. Her narrative voice limited by inexperience, recording the events but not able to put flesh to the motivations of the adults in her life. This must have called for strong discipline by the adult Galloway, who with the benefit of experience and hindsight must have been sorely tested to impute motive and justification to the characters and to insert her own emotional responses to the events. The fact that she has taken pains to expunge her adult thoughts proves that the book really isn’t about her but is a documentary of a world without men in a time when men were the breadwinners.
It’s extraordinary. Richard Holloway, who chaired the event, started by listing the awards Galloway has already won for her fiction. Introducing this book, he said: “I’ll eat my mitre, if this book doesn’t sweep up more prizes”. I sincerely hope it sweeps up everything for which it is eligible and I wish fervently that Galloway doesn’t keep me waiting another 6 years for volume 2.
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