Available as: Audio (narrated by Lesley Harcourt), 9 hours 48 minutes
Source: Audible subscription
I have been a fan of Louise Beech's books for some time. Her fiction combines real, believable characters in all their human muddle with gripping stories and they always, always have such heart.
In her memoir Daffodils, Beech pulls the curtain aside and invites us to see some of her own life. It's a difficult story, kicking off from the moment when, in 2019, Beech's mother attempted suicide and loosely following her mum's hospitalisation and - sort of - recovery. We see the author's process of coming to terms (sort of) with what happened in 2019 and also, as part of that, her recollections of and attempts to understand her own earlier life. We also get to meet her younger sisters and brother, who share their own takes on that story, and (inevitably, look at the date) we see life overturned by the covid pandemic and by the lockdown measures necessary to address it.
I thought this book was beautiful, fierce and brave. It keeps coming back to mysteries - the mystery of Beech's mum's behaviour and treatment of her children (which often makes for hard and painful reading) and the gaps's in Beech's own recollection of that. Those gaps might not be surprising, given it was a life split across different houses and children's homes, sometimes with siblings, sometimes not, involving both periods spent at her grandmother's and occasions when her mum's raucous living arrangements disrupted all their lives.
Behind all that, though, Beech suspects things, and people, that she has has blotted out and there are hints of painful events and possibly even abuse. After consulting everyone who might be able to explain, and all the records that are available, and going over all the different versions, significant gaps remain. This leads to a book that is both raw and painful and yet calm, collected and focussed and it sets down the evidence and speculates. You can see in some of this the the hand of the excellent novelist that Louise Beech is - employed here not to decide how the gaps may be filled, what the plot ends, but to identify them as gaps and catalogue the potential dangers therein. It felt to me a bit like a mine clearance operation, as Beech sifts through the landscape of her memory, raising flags and barriers to show the dangerous ground, the paths to avoid. And then she ventures inside to these dangerous places, not exactly defusing and rendering safe, but exploring the landscape for us and showing how she is transforming it and succeeding in living there.
I want to stress here that you shouldn't read this book thinking, oh look, that's where she gets this incident or that episode from one of the books. Yes, of course, obviously Daffodils does highlight events which have inspired Beech's writing, but I had a sense reading this that the real truths exposed here - sometimes painfully - are moral truths, truths about persistence, integrity, and love. Those are qualities which her readers will recognise at once from her novels and which are more important I think and much more fundamental than details of plot. Yes, reading this book did shed light on the novels, but not in such a cause and effect way.
And it sheds light on much else: the (sometimes amusing) background to being a hard-working author, the frustrations of negotiating for her mother's care with an overstretched and wilting NHS (this even before the pandemic), the solidarity and humour of the sibling group in the face of that adversity, and, in the end, the unknowableness of another human being - even one as supposedly close as a parent. You can feel the struggles that Beech has on this last conundrum, as she wrestles both to see her mother safe and cared for, and counts the cost of what that same mother has done, and not done, to and for her kids.
Not, as I said, remotely an easy read, but a heartfelt book and I am so grateful to the author and rather humbled that she (and of course also her super sisters and brother) have been willing to let us into their lives in this way.
The audio is read excellently by Lesley Harcourt, including a variety of voices for the family members - in a story where we get numerous, sometimes contradictory, accounts of past events, as well as flashbacks and a great deal of authorial comment, it's always clear what perspective we are hearing and the story came over naturally and clearly.
Finally, and not least, I know a lot more now about daffodils than before I listened to this book!For more information about Daffodils, see Louise's website here. You can buy Daffodils from only retailer sites such as Amazon.