Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Review: The Mother Garden and The Mercy Papers by Robin Romm

These two touching and moving books were yet again gifts from my US editor, to whom I am forever grateful. She works on wonderful books and has excellent taste but, of course, I would say that.

I'm sure you would too if you read these books. The first, The Mother Garden, is a book of short stories with a definite theme. In every story there is a mother and, in each of them, this mother is either dead or dying. The book is a smorgasboard of oxygen tanks and chemotherapy, of lives lived on but with an inevitably massive hole. Most of the stories are firmly planted in the soil of realism, except perhaps 'The Mother Garden' of the title. This slightly surreal piece contains many different mothers brought together and planted in an attempt to fill the hole left by the main character's lost mum.

The entire collection is touching and compelling. I often find short story collections tricky, enough of the stories leaving me cold to make finishing an entire book difficult, but this was definitely an exception. I was compelled to pick it up and continue until I had finished them all. Since, I've found I wanted to buy it for friends, one of the biggest compliments I could give a book, passing it on to people I care about.

It's no surprise then, that reading Romm's bio, you find pretty quickly that she did lose her mother in the recent past. The Mercy Papers is her record of that experience. It's a sad book, so very sad, but it's also incredibly honest, at turns angry, aware and vibrant. It's beautifully written in that clear concise style that seems to be such a mainstay of American publishing. Crafted. Although the subject matter is sad, and it could be depressing, I didn't feel depressed afterwards so much as full of compassion for those who have, are and will go through such things. All of us, then.

I hate to use a cliche but I feel I have to here, about these books, and that is that they are two sides of the same coin. This is an overused turn of phrase, but it does describe perfectly what I felt on reading these two pieces of writing so sod it. Romm documents what I think must be her most life changing experience so far in a memoir, then fiction. In doing so she gives the most complete picture I could ever imagine and that's as much as a writer can ever do. I am full of admiration.

I wrote a story once on this topic which I couldn't help but think of when I read Romm's books. In fact, it was my first pubished piece of fiction. I don't think for a moment it stands up to what Robin Romm has achieved. They say write what you know, and I didn't know this at all, though I could imagine it and have, as we all do, in bad dreams and moments of worry. I can imagine it whole lot better now thanks to Robin Romm's insightful and moving account.

I can't recommend these books highly enough.

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