Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, 2022), 269pp, $35
‘When I was very small, I loved wolves, she told me.’ The broadcaster Noelle McCarthy begins her memoir with a recollection of early childhood that alludes to an almost fairy-tale world. But look again at that deceptively simple opening sentence: ‘When I was very small, I loved wolves, she told me.’ From the beginning, the past is mediated through the mother. She is the one who—for good or ill—first tells our story, tells us who we are. Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter presents a moving story of beginnings and endings, frankly detailing a childhood damaged by a mother’s alcoholism and McCarthy’s own journey of recovery from the same addiction.
McCarthy brings a cinematic clarity to her account of growing up in Ireland, of being bribed with bags of crisps while her mother day-drinks in pubs with soggy carpets and wary bartenders. Typically, chapters open with one of those deceptively simple sentences before delving deep into scenes with an almost anthropological eye for detail. Here, the past truly is another country but brought close to contemporary readers in Aotearoa through the unsparing observation of family banter and bickering, of deep wounds so lightly inflicted. What McCarthy offers is not a nostalgic rendering of an adolescence on the other side of the world, although there are numerous markers of fashion and food and music that wonderfully evoke the elsewhere of the past. She uses her physical distance from the land of her birth to explore the forces that drove her from home in the first place, bringing her as a young adult to Auckland, where she hopes to make a fresh start—that perennial fantasy of the Antipodean clean slate. McCarthy, however, soon finds that she carries the past with her, as the section of the book that deals with her own downward spiral into alcoholism makes painfully clear.
Smoking outside on a chilly Auckland evening, just three days’ sober and trying to summon the courage to enter her first twelve-step meeting, McCarthy is transported back to her childish attempts to stop her mother drinking. ‘Please go and get some help please’, she had written in a note to her Mammy years before, earning only denials and insults in response. The powerlessness of the child witnessing a parent’s self-destruction, McCarthy realises, has been replicated in her own unwitting imitation of those same forms of self-harm. She has become her mother in the worst possible way. ‘I’m terrible at smoking’, she writes, ‘I jeered at Mammy when she’d scrabble around looking for half-smoked butts in the early mornings. But I had the same contempt for her drinking, and where did that get me?’
To answer that question will require McCarthy to not only face the truth of her combative relationship with her mother but also to admit the dangerous appeal that a woman out of control holds for her. ‘Mammy was a werewolf’, we are told: ‘it only took one drink to change her. The first mouthful of the first pint of Carling, all the evil came out dancing. Her face would change, but subtly; her eyes would brighten and her nose would lengthen. Everything about her became wilder and sharper and more alert.’ This may be a monstrous transformation, but it made Mammy larger than life; any child with a passion for gothic stories—McCarthy became obsessed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an obsession that continued into academic study—might be inexorably drawn to emulate such a figure. Who would not want to be wilder, bright-eyed and more alert?
If it is an inevitable part of growing up that we learn to relinquish our childish version of the all-powerful mother, though, it is no easy matter to replace that fantasy with a more mature understanding of what it means to be a flawed, vulnerable human, and to extend that understanding not only to our parents but to ourselves. Outside that first Auckland meeting, McCarthy finally finds the courage to heed the advice of the desperate daughter she had been back in Cork, but this time on her own behalf: Please go and get some help please. Where Mammy’s efforts to stop drinking had never been more than half-hearted, McCarthy gets with the programme and sticks with it.
Some of the best writing in Grand occurs in this part of the story, describing the naked vulnerability that is revealed once the anaesthetising effect of alcohol is removed:
Newly sober, and raw as a rubbed eyelid, my God is in the Sky Tower. I … smoke Marlboro Lights that I hate the taste of and look out over the city to where the hypodermic rises into the sky a block and a half away, and I ask someone, anyone to look after me. I don’t know if they will, or if they won’t, but the asking becomes something of a ritual, comforting in itself at the end of another long day of uncertainty.
There is no triumph of willpower, no evangelical zeal for sobriety or magical cure in Grand. Rather, the stinging exposure of rebirth—evoked with such power in that image of the raw, rubbed eyelid—forces an acknowledgement of a need for nurture so long denied and with it a sobering (in every sense) recognition that to be alone in recovery is to see ourselves as child and adult at the same time. If McCarthy’s alcoholism had been a destructive expression of becoming her mother, she now needs to find a different way of being a daughter and a woman in her own right. Part of this process will involve McCarthy reflecting more deeply on the traumas suffered by her mother (and women of earlier generations on both sides of her family) and trying to accommodate such painful family history within a new identity for herself as neither monster nor victim.
The complicating factor here, though, is her mother’s terminal cancer which provides the memoir’s framing narrative and threatens to bring the story to a tragic close before any satisfactory resolution—either of relationship or identity—can be reached. Grand closes with McCarthy watching her mother’s funeral, livestreamed from Cork, on her laptop at home in Featherston, ‘like I’m watching Netflix’. It is an episode that poignantly captures the (literal) disconnection of grief at such a time, the way that the death of a parent, however expected, may strike with a force that can sever us from our own emotional response, as if we are watching a movie even if we are right there, sitting in the pew or by the bedside, IRL. Here, however, the eye for detail that had created such a rich narrative earlier in the story felt a bit like a retreat to reportage in the face of unbearable loss, making me question whether this memoir is not a little too soon, written while still too steeped in the raw numbness of grief.
What usually drives the teller of the autobiographical tale, as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, is the desire to go back and recover some aspect of the past so it can be integrated into one’s current identity. While, in everyday life, we might keep difficult memories packed safely away, the memoirist must pick at memory’s knots until they come undone and lead the mind back through links, digressions or epiphanies in order to arrive at as much understanding as can be borne. In memoir, Karr insists, retrospective narration is key: the narrator looks back to interpret the past so that what emerges on the page is not simply anecdotes of earlier life, however compelling, but a clarity of perspective, a depth of understanding, that we might call wisdom. In a story like Grand, where distance is a recurring theme—between Ireland and Aotearoa, between mother and daughter—I wondered if the distance that comes with the passage of time might offer not simply the comfort of accepting what is past changing but the fuller expression of new life, a new becoming.
Grand’s final image is a memory of Mammy, plucky to the end, posing for a photograph wearing a grey fur coat. In the opening chapter, McCarthy had recalled reading a different version of Red Riding Hood to her own small daughter, Eve, a version where nobody is rescued at the end. ‘Eve took it in her stride’, McCarthy writes, ‘but I was haunted’. The role reversal here—where the adult is unnerved by a fairy tale that leaves the child unmoved—haunted me, in turn. I wanted to know all about Eve and her childish resilience in the face of that dark story of a girl un-rescued, an unrepentant wolf. McCarthy writes so powerfully about the fierce love of nurturing a new-born, a phase of mothering stripped to an almost brutal simplicity, where self necessarily recedes. But it is arguably in the years that follow that initial shock of transforming from adult to parent, when children continue to deserve all the selfless love we can muster and yet mothers neglect their own need for self-nurture at their peril, that the challenge of becoming is at its most urgent.
If, however, I would have liked this story of mothers and daughters to continue a little longer and to dig a little deeper, it is perhaps testimony to McCarthy’s achievement in reminding us that we cannot know in advance what will sustain us, or what form rescue might take in the stories we pass on through the generations. This memoir about learning to truly see a mother who is flawed and damaged is no less concerned with learning to be a mother who can acknowledge her own vulnerability and find in it the strength to nurture her own daughter.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every Morning, So Far, I’m Alive: A Memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).