For the most part I read old books in newish editions, the very fact that they're still around is testament to some combination of quality and popular appeal, and it's very easy to avoid books that won't interest me. Reading a novel, or in this case novella, hot off the pen is a different matter, especially on the rare occasions when I can claim some sort if acquaintance with the author. I know Meike through occasional email exchanges about her Peirene titles, she's a woman I like and admire so reading her first book, 'Magda', was unexpectedly nerve wracking - what if I didn't like it? I did like it, very much, which made me look forward to her second book with interest, and happily say yes when I was offered a proof copy by the publisher, but I read it with that same nervousness - this time because the contemporary north London setting is not one that I'm drawn to.
After all that the first thing to say is that I really liked this one too. Clara's daughter is Michele, successful business woman (though if I had a quibble it would be that I couldn't quite imagine her as the CEO of an oil company which is what she's meant to be), mother, and wife of the rather less successful Jim, she is also Hilary's sister. Initially it seems that Jim and Michele have it all - a happy marriage, children successfully launched on their respective paths, nice home, financial stability, but that's not an impression that lasts long.
The heart of this book is the relationship between mothers and daughters, and specific expectations that society has about daughters when it comes to ageing parents. Clara has reached the point where she isn't quite safe on her own but is unwilling to give up her independence. For Jim the answer is simple - a good residential home, for Michele it's more complicated. The relationships between mother and daughter, husband and wife are interesting but I'm mostly going to ignore them because what really interested me was the relationship between Michele and Hilary.
It feels like a given that Michele's loyalties are torn between her mother and her husband - it is after all what society expects - the question is will she be a good daughter or a good wife. What Michele might actually want is kept deliberately unclear, there are times when her choices about Clara look to be motivated more by ambivalent feelings towards Jim than anything else, but in the background there is Hilary. Manipulative, emotional, Hilary who doesn't want Clara to go into a home, doesn't want to lose her inheritance, isn't in a position to care for Clara herself, and who keeps on chipping away until she gets what she wants.
The portrait of mother and daughter is good, but the sister is the detail which really brings it alive and made this book something special for me. There's a scene where Hilary is on the phone telling Michele that Clara's had a fall, spent the night in hospital, and had tried to phone Michele for help. She's almost hysterical which is a stark contrast to Michele's colder more logical approach and there's more than a suspicion that she's not being quite honest but either way Hilary is an external voice for Michele's internal guilt regarding her mother. This isn't just a primeval stand off between mother and daughter, it's between mother and daughters with the other daughter reinforcing that first learnt loyalty to the mother, the dynamic between the three is fascinating.
I'm aware as I try and write this that I'm expressing myself badly. Essentially I think Ziervogel touches on something fundamental in the relationship between mothers, daughters, and sisters with all the subtle elements of competition, expectation, resentment, and disappointment that are integral to that particular combination. It's a good book, and short, well worth reading - and that's before you even begin to consider the portrait of a wound down marriage - which is also excellent.