The Lost Woman by Sydney Wayland Smith (Text Publishing 2012) is a remarkable story. This is a review where I struggle to find words that are effective without going into the exclamatory, over-the-top register. Why? Because it tells the story of a child who nearly didn’t survive her childhood. Her upbringing was erratic, cruel, uncaring and perverse, and she makes it very clear on the first page that she wasn’t taken care of; the roles were reversed. She had to take care of her mother. Her mother, it often seemed, ‘wasn’t there,’ although she was there in the flesh.
…while she was enormously present in her fat, rolling flesh, she was absent in other ways, taken possession of by a dream that filled her mind for days at a time, that helpd her face immobile in a pose of passionate preoccupation.
Yet if her daughter left the room the mother would demand to know where she was going. She was imprisoned by invisible chains, fixed in silence, free to do as she liked only when she was walking home from school and could stretch time a little by visiting the library. Reading was her refuge. Her mother was a problem she had to solve, but she was never able to. We never know what the mother is thinking, what makes her tick, except that she regards the child as her possession. The child’s father is not a cruel man, but he is mostly absent and quite ineffectual against the mother’s power. Her brothers live their own lives, and are allowed to, for the most part. Whereas the child is prisoner to a woman who is cruel, erratic, absent, lazy, cunning, possessive, unforgiving, and probably mad. Yet she is never analysed. This is one of the strengths of the book. The narrator as a child did not understand her mother, and does not try to as an adult. She just describes her mother’s behaviour and her own responses to it in simple, direct prose that shatters us with its bleak, hopeless despair.
I was the housemaid. School was wasted on a housemaid.
I couldn’t stop resenting the unjustice. Nor could I give up trying to shirk my chores…
I had to be careful how far I pushed her. Any little thing might set her off. I had to stand at the twin tub, waiting for it to finish its cycle. If I wandered away and Mother caught me, she grabbed my ponyutail and hauled me back into the laundry room, hit me round the head a few times and napped, ‘Now stand there and don’t move.’
Yet, this child feels compassion for her mother. It hurts her that their neighbours think of her mother as a witch. Yet she was a witch to her as well.
But I knew it left out aspects of her that only I saw: her loneliness, her injured, angry helplessness. Witches weren’t supposed to be helpless or lonely; they were supposed to be self-sufficient in their power. The label hurt me too, because I understood how it tainted me. I couldn’t forget that I was the witch’s daughter and that the mark was permanent.
The mother is Maori and the father is pakeha. The mother grudges talking about her childhood on Chatham Island, a tiny archipelago 830 kilometres east of New Zealand. She was actually of Maori and Moriori blood, and had been sent to boarding school at age 13; there, ‘Anyone caught speaking Maori got the strap.’ For her daughter, this made it even harder to imagine abandoning her mother, when she was all alone in the world. She is an enigma that her daughter never solves, at least within the covers of this book.
Every avenue led to questions or dead end. And that worried me. If she was nothing, what was I?
The child’s secret is that she writes stories. But her stories frighten her, because they always end in violence. The end of her school years looms, and she is worried about what she will do. She cannot imagine a future beyond that of an
eternally adolescent role while at the same time withering, like one of those child-sized people who aged and died without ever growing up.
She does manage to get a job and hold it for a while, and then another — undemanding clerical jobs, which leave her mind free to work on her problem of how to escape from her mother. She does, one day, taking a train to a town a few hours away; but she only lasts a week. When she returns home, she doesn’t leave the house for nine months.
The last three chapters tell of her fall into a frightening world where cameras are hidden behind the mirrors, and her mother can read her thoughts. She has fantasies of killing her mother, hideously, with a boning knife. Writing remains her passion and her shield from her murderous hatred. Under an ultimatum from her mother, to find a job or die, she takes the boning knife and contemplates killing herself.
The young woman does escape; but only four years later, helped by an outsider to the family, a doctor. A one-way ticket to Melbourne is her escape from this cruel, hopeless existence. The doctor has helped her to see that she is responsible for her own actions, and can unmake her mistakes, and learn not to be a victim. The doctor cannot explain her mother to her. She remains an enigma. She leaves with hope, hope of being her own person, on her own terms.
So this moving, compelling memoir of an impossible childhood ends with the redemption of the victim through her own actions; she emerges into a future of possibilities, a future, we know, that will involve storytelling. For this woman is a consummate storyteller. Her prose is spare, translucent and accessible, with moments of lyrical intensity.
I’m not sure if this 2012 memoir is still in print; I had to get my copy from Abebooks. It should be. It joins a few select memoirs of childhood on my bookshelves which I regard as classics — The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, Popeye Never Told You by Rodney Hall, The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe.