Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Conde (translated by Richard Philcox)

I just shared about this book in Three W Wednesdays over on the Wadadli Pen blog (it was the what I’m reading), so I’ll just lift some of the summary from there.

“From the winner of the New Academy Prize in Literature (the alternative to the Nobel Prize) and critically acclaimed author of the classic historical novel Segu, Maryse Condé has pieced together the life of her maternal grandmother to create a moving and profound novel. Maryse Condé’s personal journey of discovery and revelation becomes ours as we learn of Victoire, her white-skinned mestiza grandmother who worked as a cook for the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, in the French Antilles. Victoire was spurred by Condé’s desire to learn of her family history, resolving to begin her quest by researching the life of her grandmother. Creating a work that takes you into a time and place populated with unforgettable characters that inspire and amaze, Condé’s blending of memoir and imagination, detective work and storytelling artistry, is a literary gem that you won’t soon forget.”

I really liked this book and as with my first read of 2021 it unlocked my tear ducts. I wasn’t bawling but Victoire brought tears to my eyes by the end. The book lovingly and unsparingly investigates, reports and reimagines the life of Conde’s matriarchal grandmother and at the same time the French Creole Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique throughout her lifetime. Post slavery through to the pre-modern Caribbean era. The grandmother’s story is complicated by being an orphan and white creole presenting while of the poor Black working class, not really fitting in either world and especially so in her own family. I say she reports because she researched what she could and of course used stories she heard growing up, but also she imagined her grandmother’s life, filling in the blank spaces in to something not only plausible but truly believable. She has an amazing touch as a writer, unsentimental but empathetic at the same time – as she navigates the complicated relationships and grievances between the poor working class, the emerging Black middle class, the local whites and their eroding privilege through this woman who cares little for the politics of it all. More heartbreaking though is the interpersonal relationships, e.g. when Victoire severs herself from her original family – though she’d never been particularly demonstrative with even the ones who were kindest to her and never really fit with the rest, I judged the manner of her leaving; and her non-communicative nature could be frustrating given the fullness of her internal life and the ways she expresses love (through cooking, through sacrifice) and how that goes unread by the person who needs it the most, her ever-estranged daughter, Conde’s mother. Her love life was fascinating for its time – reserved as she was, she opened herself to passion, scandalously and some might say selfishly so; indifferent to the judgment of all but her daughter. Things harden between them and there were cracks by the end – cue the water works. Such a heartbreaking and somewhat abrupt end. But I really appreciate having read this book. Maryse Conde is a legend in this writing game and she shows why here by penning the memoir of someone she barely knew herself and somehow making it quite intimate and assured, even while searching to define and understand her main subject. I recommend this and the other recently reviewed writer memoir for their unique approaches to non-fiction of this type and the revelations therein; with Conde’s being the more creative of the two.

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