I was scouring the bookshop the other day with the intention of buying something by a female author. It was International Women’s Day, you see, and I wanted to ‘take a stand,’ however feeble. I reached for Elena Ferrante’s, The Days of Abandonment, saw the words ‘the best angry woman writing today’ and dropped it like a hot rock. Despite having read Story of a New Name compulsively to the end, I didn’t want to make that sort of emotional commitment right now. Looking around for something else, I saw Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but wasn’t really in the mood for that either, nor for Philippa Gregory’s queens and princesses. I wanted a particular flavor–something light, warm and entertaining. And that was when my eye settled on The Pope, my Brother and I: Recollections of a French Childhood by Penny Howson.
The author’s note says Howson was born in France in the 1920s, moved to the US as a teenager and travelled, due to her husband’s work, to ‘Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon, Tokyo, London and Jeddah’. Already I felt some kinship with this nomadic spirit. Delving into her biography a bit more, I found that her latest home is in Lagos on the SW coast of Portugal—just 17 km away from where we are now.
This was all enough to interest me, but the real tipping point came when I read the opening two paragraphs, chuckled and realized this was exactly the stuff I was after:
Somewhere around the age of twelve, I suddenly realized my family was going straight to Hell, all five of them, and that it was up to me to do something about it.
It was going to be a formidable task but after a bit of Purgatory, I might manage to sneak them into Heaven when Saint Peter wasn’t looking too closely. There was no time to lose especially in the case of my maternal grandmother, Boma, who was digging her grave with her teeth, sending her blood pressure to soaring heights, addicted as she was to a meter of French bread thick with butter and one half of a Camembert cheese for dessert.
The book is set in 1935, when the protagonist, Regine (the author’s middle name), is twelve years old and going through a hyper-religious phase. The memoir follows her quest to make sure her little brother is baptized before he dies an untimely (and highly unlikely) death. The adults in her life are all too absorbed with their own concerns to respond to her lobbying so she decides to take matters into her own hands, with hilarious results. But while the plot is amusing, there are other things that make the book delightful: the comedy of child logic, the affectionate description of family members, and a taste of a world that has long since disappeared.
One of my favourite scenes is when Regine is snuggled in bed with her maternal grandmother Boma when her aunt Louise and other grandmother Mémé come to visit. You feel as if you are also under the quilt listening to them all. Boma gets the ball rolling:
‘Life is easy for some people—some people have a positive genius for keeping out of hard times. Mémé, take yourself, you have never been in France during any war.’
Mémé drew herself up with a rustle of her silk shawl. ‘I was in a shipwreck and an earthquake too.’
‘Maybe so, maybe so,’ Boma said, ‘but an earthquake does not last two years like the Prussian siege.’
‘Amelia, I’ll thank you to remember that you were not the only one in the family who lived through the 1870 and 1914 wars. I was there too.’ Tante Louise said that with a tone of ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it’. It was a tone she rarely used, and from it I could tell the three ladies were off for an afternoon of their other favorite sport, which the family called ‘I wore mourning more times than you,’ or ‘How to suffer more in twenty years than any other human being.’
I all but disappeared under the feather quilt. Now if they only forgot about me, I would hear within the next two hours some fine, harrowing tales, full of illicit passions, odd cooking recipes and five easy steps in dressing a corpse. I prayed that Maman would not interrupt them and send me out to play in the garden. Maman was convinced that the old ladies’ stories caused me to bite my nails and Jean-Paul to wet his bed.’
The author’s note at the end of the second edition gives some background about of how she got the book published and also makes for interesting reading–like the book itself it’s funny, familiar and makes you like her more. Here’s an excerpt:
There I found that the women around me were at different stages of pregnancy with their books. They were much influenced by the southern women writers of the past twenty years and all of them dreamt of giving birth to another To Kill a Mockingbird, at least. Since writing came easily to me I joined one of those groups and I was overfed with laughs at every gathering. I began to realize that I was accumulating a laundry basket of amusing recollections and feared I was becoming an addict.
Every day I ran to our post box expecting some answers to the stories I had sent out. One day, I reached for a large envelope from the New Yorker with a hand-written note scribbled in the corner, one word: Lousy. I almost threw it at my little daughter. She ran after me, ‘Mom, it says lovely, LOVELY!’
She mentions having published tons of stories in magazines and I am interested now to find out more. Watch this space!