First published in February 2015.
A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’. In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.
A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused. Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children. They never met again’.
In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’. The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them. Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’. These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.
A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye. She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’. She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency. She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’. Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.
From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously. The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth. She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home. A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.