Indepth Book Review: A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay

A Hundred Small Lessons…

Book Description:

A lyrical novel of two mothers from different generations and how their lives converge in one hot, wet summer. From the bestselling author of The Railwayman’s Wife.

When Elsie Gormley falls and is forced to leave her Brisbane home of 62 years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, with their new life – new house, new city, new baby. Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents and both seek to smooth the rough edges of their present with memories of their past as they try to discover who their future selves might be.

But the house has a secret life as well, and the rooms seem to share Elsie’s memories and moments with Lucy.

In her nearby nursing home, Elsie revisits the span of her life – the moments she can’t bear to let go; the haunts to which she might return. Her memories of wifehood, motherhood, love and death are intertwined with her old house, and as the boundary between present and past becomes more porous for her, this seems to manifest in the lives now held inside that house as well.

Through one hot, wet Brisbane summer, seven lives – and two different slices of time – wind along with the flow of the river, as two families chart the ways in which we come, sudden and oblivious, into each other’s stories, and the unexpected ripples that flow out from those chance encounters.

A Hundred Small Lessons is about the many small decisions – the invisible moments – that come to make a life. These richly intertwined lives spin a warm and intricate story of how to feel – deeply and profoundly – what it is to be human; how to touch the shared experience of being mother or daughter; father or son. It’s a story of love, and of life.

 

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My Thoughts:

A Hundred Small Lessons is such a well thought out novel. The way people’s lives criss-cross, the near misses until you one day meet; this novel gives a fresh take on the whole notion of ‘six degrees of separation’. The story within is so real, a lovely ebb and flow of all the moments that link together to create the tapestry of your entire life. It’s a true comfort read and one that I will definitely return to as time goes by.

At the heart of this novel, is the notion of motherhood. Through her female characters, Ashley Hay explores motherhood in an entirely unique way, focusing not just on what ‘type’ of mother you are, but more intricately on the type of child you envisaged yourself mothering. This was depicted so well with Elsie, mother of twins, Don and Elaine, two very different children, and consequently, each could say as adults that they had a different version of Elsie as their mother. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Ashley Hay, through the dimension of Elsie’s memories, demonstrates the struggle Elsie experienced all through her relationship with Elaine. Her inability to bond with her daughter and Elaine’s never ending hostility was a source of sorrow to Elsie. Neither woman ever truly understood the other, and this misunderstanding was compounded by Elsie’s solid relationship with Don. She’d gotten the mother gig right with him, so what was Elaine’s problem? This became more obvious with Elaine’s dissatisfaction with motherhood when she became a mother herself, and again, Elsie was left wondering, “Who is this woman, my daughter, who I don’t know at all.” Such thought provoking content. As a mother of three, I could relate to this entirely. Before your first baby is born, you think of who you might be as a mother, and after they arrive, you strive to fulfil that vision, yet the child itself has a say in determining what sort of mother you end up being. No one tells you that. And with each child that comes along, your mothering must adjust, because the children are never the same. There’s a constant flexing and re-moulding taking place, and often times, it takes some adjusting to get it to work. Sometimes, you just never do get it ‘right’.

Contrasting the reflections of a mother nearing the end of a long life against those of mother just starting out was a brilliant way to structure a life story such as this one. Lucy is just new to mothering. Her son is no longer an infant but is a toddler developing his personality and exploring the boundaries of his life. Who are you once you become a parent, when your time is no longer your own and your emotions are not something you can always control in quite the same way any longer, is demonstrated to perfection with Lucy. She is still somewhat shocked by motherhood and the emotions it has wrought within her. She no longer knows who she really is because the person she was before has had to step aside for the duration. Tom is not always the ideal child, none of them ever are, so her visions of the type of mother she wants to be are often shattered and replaced with a reality that doesn’t sit well within her. Lucy’s overwhelmed state of being that ultimately leads her to leaving is all too relatable.

The different representations of motherhood within this novel are all the more appreciated when placed within the context of real life. We’ve all come across the ‘perfect mothers’ with their intolerance and overblown sense of their own achievements in the realm of all things mother related. They thrive on making other mothers feel inferior and would number high as the harshest life critics ever encountered. Novels that weigh into this trope perpetuate the feelings of inadequacy many mothers become plagued by. A Hundred Small Lessons not only avoids giving weight to this, but it deconstructs the motherhood myth and deftly replaces it with reality. Elsie was on the surface, a fairly perfect mother. To Don, anyway. But she never truly connected with Elaine, much to her own dismay. Their connection towards the end of the novel, when Elaine holds Elsie’s hand while talking about her mother’s portrait with Don, is all the more bittersweet for Elsie’s silent acknowledgement that she didn’t get it right with Elaine. We’re all just blindly trying to balance everything in order to at least get most things nearly right, and given that much of our mothering is done in isolation, novels that explore realistic notions of motherhood are the more appreciated and valued.

Ben and Clem, the fathers of this novel, have their turn at providing insight into being a husband and a father, yet both of them still never fully understand their wives in terms of their motherhood. Ben is somewhat consumed with the loss of his wife to motherhood. He struggles to understand why she can’t just continue to be who she always has been and fails to recognise the depths of her overwhelmed state of being until it’s almost too late. Clem is perhaps more insightful than Ben, but this could be owing to his life stage when we encounter him. He’s been a father for longer and also has more than one child. I quite liked Clem. He had a solidity that was comforting and truly understood his daughter in a way Elsie never did. I felt this demonstrated the role of fatherhood very well and it’s complimentary addition to motherhood, and the balance both parents can bring to a child’s life.

The serendipitous nature of the ending of this novel was truly beautiful. The connections previously laid down throughout the novel all fusing as Gloria, Elsie’s grand daughter, drops in on Ben and Lucy. What we knew, now becomes apparent to Ben and Lucy, and so many things fall into place for them. There is sadness though, as Elsie’s dementia deteriorates and through this unravelling we witness her consequent slide towards death. While she certainly lived a long and good life, the end of a person is always sad.

I always love a story that revolves around a house or a certain place. Where we lay our roots can be so important, tied up with so much of our self awareness. Elsie’s fast deterioration after being removed from her beloved home just highlights how much of ourselves we invest in the place we choose to inhabit. I really loved the way Lucy connected to Elsie without ever having met her. They walked the same rooms within a different time, but Elsie’s presence was still very much evident to Lucy and provided a source of comfort to Lucy as she struggled to find her way in her new life.

A Hundred Small Lessons is the type of novel you can give as a gift with confidence that the recipient will enjoy it. The glorious cover alone promises delight upon opening. I highly recommend this beautiful novel, to everyone who reads. To all of you who are or ever have been a parent. To everyone who has ever been a child at some point in your lives (which is of course every human being). There is much to be gained from reading this novel.

Thanks is extended to the Queensland Writers Centre and Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of A Hundred Small Lessons for review.

 

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A Hundred Small Lessons is book 29 of my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.