Elizabeth Nunez’s just-published recollection opens with a phone ringing, but it’s the middle of the next page before she even looks at the caller ID. She spends that time telling us about the novel she’s proofreading. It draws on her mother’s life, and especially the breast cancer that was killing her. But she assures us “my mother lives. Her cancer may have reached the terminal stage, but it was not terminal.” I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but it does set the tone for the book, which puts Nunez and her writing, and her insecurities and resentments, at the forefront, and her mother as mostly a secondary character in her own life.
I’m also baffled that it doesn’t occur to Nunez that the call could be about her mother, given that she tells us her mother is 90 years old. Her niece has to call a second time, and doesn’t say anything until the bottom of the second page. Yet some 180 pages later, we learn that Nunez had been in Trinidad and seen her parents three times in the eight months before her mother died. I know that parents can fade fast, and that children can deny the obvious, but it would have been my first thought under those circumstances.
At first I assumed this opening chapter must be a prologue, even though it is numbered simply “1,” and that eight pages later, under “2,” we would be transported back to Nunez’s childhood in Trinidad, or perhaps her mother’s early life. But no, chapter 2 opens with the youngest of the 11 siblings meeting Elizabeth, stoically, at the airport. And we are told not to expect emotion because “We are Nunezes,” and besides, Judith is an actuary. She breaks the news to Elizabeth as a matter of fact, though Elizabeth relays it just as plainly: “Our mother did not make it through the night.”
There’s one paragraph about how Elizabeth had wanted to hold her mother’s hand, a couple of lines of small talk about the offer of life support and the decision against it, but Elizabeth does not tell Judith about the former or express dissatisfaction with the latter. Instead we’re on to more details about Judith, but we know her as a character in a story, not as the narrator’s sister and partner in bereavement.
They head for their parents’ house, to their father. But by the fifth page of the chapter, we are given a simple list of the children, two from Waldo’s first marriage, followed by nine live births and, if I recall correctly, three miscarriages. I’m afraid I was so swamped with details that I lost interest in them. The constancy of Una Nunez’s pregnancy is significant, first because the heart of this chapter is a complaint about how the Roman Catholic church bullied her to forgo birth control and put her children through abuse and guilt over failed marriages. Elizabeth tells us, too, how hard it was on her, Una’s eldest biological child, to have her mother always pregnant, but I’m afraid she’s already lost my sympathy.
Don’t think, either, that the theme of Una’s Catholicism will be a constant through the book. It comes and goes amid other complaints and experiences, mostly Elizabeth’s own. Just keeping track of the shifting time frames is difficult. It may be hard for a family of 13 to be terribly close, but that makes it even harder for one of them to introduce the rest of us and make us care to follow through.
Neither is there a real story here about the observance of Una’s death. In chapter 8 Jacqueline, the bank-manager daughter, requires Elizabeth’s assistance, on the night of her arrival, in selecting a dress for their mother to wear in her casket. But in the next paragraph Elizabeth is claiming that she bought Una her first ready-made dress, in New York. Then we learn that Una made her daughters’ clothes, if not well or happily, but had “an exquisite sense of style,” at least for herself. Wrapped into that is a blow-by-blow account of her son Gregory’s beyond-mischievous prank, reported to be just one of many.
The family’s fortunes rise, but there are frequent references back, such as to raising chickens and turkeys in the dining room. Sister Karen was spared by being too young, but Elizabeth had to change the newspaper cage linings, and from that we learn that one of Trinidad’s traditional dishes, callaloo, bears something of a resemblance, which was of course exploited in brotherly teasing, presented to explain “my revulsion for callaloo.” And after a couple more detours, ranging as far as bush meat, the chapter ends with Elizabeth’s love for “that chain with the gold cross” her mother wore but she hadn’t mentioned, with Jacqueline selecting the last dress Elizabeth had sent, never worn, and Elizabeth’s apparent whining that “The dress is to become our mother’s shroud, and one of my sisters will claim the gold chain with the crucifix.”
The book contains three chapters, a total of nine pages, that are exclusively about how the family handles the death. The first one, just two pages, is followed by an 18-page chapter that’s almost entirely about Elizabeth’s own life outside of Trinidad, as writer, teacher, and mother. It includes an actual historical footnote, the only one in the book.
Maybe I misunderstood. I probably should have noticed that the words “A Memoir” appear on the cover of this book with the writer’s name, not as a subtitle. I was really looking forward to learning something about Trinidad, its culture and history, and maybe its flora and fauna. There are tantalizing tidbits scattered through here, but they’re hard to find and harder to put into any organized picture, especially if you don’t already know a lot of that. This is especially true when I have to wade through details about someone I don’t know who seems mostly dissatisfied with the life she’s recounting.
Maybe if I did know the writer better I would be more interested in how her novels fit into her memories and her relationship with her mother. But I don’t know her novels, and there’s little here, in content or presentation, to make me want to read them. The memoir also contains repetitive language and teeth-on-edge grammatical errors that tear me out of the world of any book.* Anyway, if I could remember which parts of which novels are based on what real situations, I would be distracted by them. I think I’ll settle for knowing only the writer, and only this far.
* While I read a volume marked by a stick-on label as an “advance reading copy” and not for sale, the book was released before I received the review copy, and the ARC did not carry the customary request not to quote without seeing a fully edited copy. Anyway, I can’t imagine who besides the writer could have committed these errors in the first place.