Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project? I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful. Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’
The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character. Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful. This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way. This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me. “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.” I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’
A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’. In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.
In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age. She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’. The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here. Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother. To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.
Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.