Friday, January 02, 2004

Finding fiction I can relate to - Margaret Forster

For the longest time, I wouldn't read fiction about contemporary family relationships. Those stories seemed to be mostly about white, middle-class people and surely wouldn't have much in common with me (a first generation Chinese New Zealander wrestling with the conflicts between a strict, traditional upbringing and the Western culture of my surroundings).

In order for me to consider reading a novel (unless it was science fiction), it would have to be about offspring of immigrants, preferably female.

That worked for ages, I got to enjoy the work of Amy Tan, Ruth Ozeki, Patricia Chao and, more recently, Meera Syal.

I've since had to take it all back. Margaret Forster. I only discovered her less than a year ago, even though she's been around for decades, and only because a memoir of hers was on the reading list for a course I was doing. But I've now read 2 memoirs and 3 novels by her, and enjoyed every single one:

'Hidden Lives' is the result of Forster delving into her family history, catalysed by the knowledge that her grandmother had had an illegitimate daughter.

'Precious Lives' is about the slow journey towards death, of Forster's father and sister-in-law respectively. Throughout, Forster tries to answer the question of what exactly is it that drives an individual to cling to life - what is it that makes life so precious.

And the novels I've just completed are 'Georgy Girl', 'The travels of Maudie Tipstaff' and .'Mother can you hear me?'

I could identify with most of the female characters in some way, even the ones who were an absolute pain in the neck.

The novels are, I suppose, female-oriented in theme and approach - mothers and daughters; fathers and daughters; the struggle to escape parental manipulation, yet being unable to completely break bonds. They actually are not so different from Amy Tan's books - the cultural settings are different but the themes are universal.

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