This is the tale of two unloved daughters. One is the author. The other is her mother, who was so painfully rejected as a child that she had no love to pass on. It is framed as Tremain’s own coming of age story. Running alongside that narrative though, and often eclipsing it, is the mother’s tale. The outcome is a memoir jangling with grievance and stiff with hurt. It concludes, not with any kind of reconciliation, but when, at the age of 18, “I at last discovered in myself … deep anger with my mother.” That anger emboldened Tremain to cast off the persona of “Rosie” – the little girl repeatedly told she was clumsy, dull, an “idiot child” – and become “Rose”, the writer to be.
Her mother, Jane, was sent away to boarding school at the age of six by parents heartbroken, or heart-deadened, by the loss of her two brothers, one to appendicitis, the other to war. Later Jane told Rose that she clung to the thought that her mother had bought her an expensive coat to take away with her, silk-lined, with a cape. Surely, she reasoned, that must mean her mother cared for her “just a little bit”. Perhaps – but Tremain doubts it.
Jane grew up troubled. Her loveless childhood left her greedy for grownup pleasures. When her husband left her, instead of turning to her two daughters for consolation, she sent them away to boarding school too. She “couldn’t cope” with them. Another girl told Rose that at the start of one term, after Jane had put her daughters on the train, she linked arms with another mother and said: “Good! Now we can get on with life!” Tremain never forgave her for this reported callousness.
Two generations of inadequate mothers and their unforgiving daughters – on the face of it this is miserable material, but just as Tremain is too independent of sentimental convention to give her mother any kind of free pass, so she’s not sorry for herself either. Her early childhood, she writes, was “paradise”. In the school holidays she and her sister Jo were dispatched to stay with their grandparents, who were “cross, unloving” but rich, with a large house in Hampshire, where the girls ate food that seemed ambrosial compared with the spam and tinned ravioli they were used to. They were at once neglected and indulged. Tremain remembers the butler solemnly climbing the ladder of their tree house to bring them glasses of squash set out on a silver tray.
Tremain looks back at her upbringing with curiosity. Sometimes she is aghast – “What was Jane thinking?” – sometimes icily detached: losing a father (he abandoned the family when she was 10) made very little difference to her, she writes. She openly admits to lapses of memory, and to puzzlement. She is candid enough to confront conventional wisdom about the primacy of affection. True, Rosie’s grandmother was “a ghostly presence” whom she didn’t like very much, but “I don’t think we cared”.
She certainly cared, though, about her mother’s coldness. There are memories of childhood holidays in Cornwall, of the circus, of riding lessons on Wimbledon Common, of a birthday picnic, but every one of these potentially idyllic episodes is linked to a grievance against Jane, and related here with resentment unappeased by time. One summer, while Rosie’s parents “danced and drank on the Riviera”, she and Jo were sent elsewhere with their nanny. Perhaps, she says caustically, they thought “they might like us more” afterwards. Not so.
Boarding school was spartan in ways that will be familiar to anyone who attended such a school in the 60s, but it was also liberating. Tremain is furious with her mother for sending her there, and equally furious with her for taking her away. With a sympathetic English teacher, she had begun to flourish intellectually. She was painting and playing the piano and putting on plays. Her mother didn’t bother to come to the school concert. She wrote snide comments on Rosie’s reports. She forbade her to try for Oxford: she didn’t want “a bluestocking” for a daughter.
There is one really shocking event in this book – not a piece of chilly negligence, but rape, a violent crime. Jane, the hated mother, is the victim of it. Literary decorum requires that an action so extreme, if introduced into a narrative, be accorded some kind of felt significance, some narrative function. Tremain records it, but she is no more able to respond to it than her mother is. In life, they never talk about it. In this book, it is noted as a fact, but has no consequences, whether literary or emotional.
Tremain’s fiction is written with poise in a variety of finely differentiated voices. It is full of astute observations of human foibles and of sensory experience; it is artfully structured and elegantly expressed. This memoir is different. It is as though, striving to give honest expression to unmanageable feelings, she has been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to find a comfortable form for them. The result is a raw, ungainly, arresting book.
• Rosie is published by Chatto & Windus. To order a copy for £11.99 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.