Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

motherThe Short Version: On a winter’s day in early 1943, a young and very pregnant German woman in Rome takes a stroll to a nearby church for a concert. Along the way, she considers her absent husband, the city, and the war itself – and wonders if there might not be a better life for her unborn child somewhere down the line.

The Review: I don’t think I can really fight it anymore (although I think I’ve determined what, exactly, the issue is) – I struggle with proper stream of consciousness novels. When a writer sticks you into someone’s head and they just sort of go on at length, thoughts spinning off into other thoughts and other things before ricocheting back to their original track… it takes a very particular sort of author writing that sort of novel for me to actually get on board. Mrs. Dalloway is a notable exception in that way – but also one that proves the rule, really. It’s not just a single person’s thoughts for the whole book but rather several people each getting their own turn, as it were.

There’s also an issue of the writing itself – a good writer, one who I really click with, can write damn near anything and I’ll enjoy it. Whereas an author who is even just okay means all the more work on my part. And so it is with this wisp of a novel, following a young German girl during World War II on a walk from her home to a church for a concert. The entire novel is a single long digression – there is only one full stop and it comes, you guessed it, at the end of the novel. Instead, thoughts are separated with commas and colons and semi-colons and extra-wide paragraph indentations – and the gimmick gets to be a little frustrating.

Because, you see, in light of everything happening in places like Egypt right now – my mind is apt to wander off the track of this novel and into the track of, well, my own stream of consciousness. Perhaps this is a flaw in the way that I read: I go to a novel to inhabit other lives, yes, but I also go in order very specifically to get away from my own life. To have a distraction, an escape, somewhere else to go. When I can’t do that, the experience is, frankly, diminished. And so while the descriptions of Rome are beautiful and there are moments of exceptional recognition of the continuum we exist in on this planet – she bucks herself up with reassurances that the Allies will never bomb Rome because it’s the heart of Christendom, she sees the SPQR stamped around the city and wonders what it means – there’s also something strangely detached here. Put another way, despite her musings on whether or not this war is right and whether or not the Axis is right, I never get the sense that she is anything more than a mouthpiece for Delius to consider said ideas. She never feels like anything other than a stock character, despite the fact that we spend the entirety of the book inside her head.

Rating: 2 out of 5. The thing about this isn’t that I found the book to be bad – it’s simply that I didn’t enjoy or even really register the reading of it. It was a stone skipping across the pond of my literary experience: a few phrases or thoughts clip the surface here or there before gliding in smoothly and sinking out of sight, leaving little sign that anything ever occurred in the first place. There’s a strong concept here, reflecting on the universality of how the individual person longed not for war but for peace, not for death but for family – but it feels so much more like an exercise than an actual meditation on those topics.

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