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Book Review – Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours

getimage207-657x1024.aspxTitle: Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours
Author: Erwin Mortier (translated by Paul Vincent)
Genre: Memoir
Release Date: January 5, 2016
Rating: ★★★★

“‘My mother, a house that is slowly collapsing, a bridge dancing to a tremor.’
It started when she could no longer remember the word for ‘book’. Then her mind, her language and her identity began to slip away. 
This is Erwin Mortier’s moving, exquisitely observed memoir of his mother’s descent into dementia, as a once-flamboyant woman who loved life and pleasure becomes a shuffling, ghostlike figure wandering through the house. Piecing together the fragments of her lost life, and his own childhood, Mortier asks: what do we become when we lose the repertoire of habits and words that make us who we are? How well do we really know our families? How do you say goodbye to someone who is still there and yet not, suspended between life and death? Stammered Songbook is a heartbreaking and poetic expression of a son’s love; an extraordinary hymn to language; a meditation on time, mortality and how, eventually, we all unravel into memories.” (Pushkin Press)

I would describe this book as ‘bittersweet’. Not only does it explore the heartbreak of watching a parent disappear before your eyes – forgetting you in the process – but it also acts as a reflection on the relationship between parent and child. Reading it is almost like looking at a relationship in reverse, beginning with the looming death of the mother and ending with some of Erwin Mortier’s earliest memories of his mother.

It’s an intimate look at Alzheimer’s and the impact it has not only on the sufferer, but also the people close to them. There is guilt felt by the family, as they come to the realisation that they will not be able to give the mother the care she requires. Mortier questions whether, when it gets closer to the end, would his mother want to be kept alive for as long as possible or would she want things to be over quickly. How do you care for a person who doesn’t even realise they need care?

I found the memory aspect of the book particularly beautiful. It is the deterioration of the mind and memory of Mortier’s mother which are at the heart of things, but while the disease is robbing his mother of her memories and her self, he still has her in his own memories; keeping pieces of her alive and untouched by the disease.

Mortier’s writing is something very special to read. In recounting this time in his life, he manages to make some acute observations about life and death, offering plenty for the reader to ponder. Two observations stood out for me. The first:

“Others who have died have strengthened me in all kinds of strange ways. With their lips that had fallen silent, before the earth covered them for ever, they quickly spelled out to me what probably matters most as long as we’re breathing: that love is attention. That they are two words for the same thing. That it isn’t necessary to try to clear up every typo and obscure passage that we come across when we read the other person attentively—that a human being is difficult poetry, which you must be able to listen to without always demanding clarification, and that the best thing that can happen to us us the absolution that a loved one grants us for the unjustifiable fact that we exist and drag along with us a self that has been marked and shaped by so many others.

And then there was this:

“Love is gravity.”

You can take from that one whatever you like.

At around 170 pages, Stammered Songbook had me thinking about life, death, love, family, and loss, in a short amount of time. Although I felt that it wandered a little towards the end, I didn’t see this as a great issue in the context of the book on the whole – in some ways it mirrors the wandering, soon to be lost, mind of Mortier’s mother. Overall this was a touching and thoroughly engaging read that had moments both sad and hopeful.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review!

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9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: 10 underrated books I love. | Bits & Books

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  3. Oh goodness, I don’t know that I could stomach this one right now. It just sounds like an exquisite punch to the gut. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, though—that larger quotation you shared floored me.

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    • Imagine a whole book of that kind of thing! While I was reading I wanted to be glad I was enjoying the book, but it was just so dang sad I couldn’t. And I don’t even really know if the end was happy or sad – it was bittersweet I guess.

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  4. I love books about memory and memory loss, even though they tend to be sad. I’ll add this one to my list!

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    • I like books about memory too. You should give Patrick Modiano a go if you haven’t already – his books are very memory orientated, but deal more with a loss of the past rather than a loss of memory. I’ve read two of his books recently and they were really beautiful.

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  5. This sounds fantastic (although the topic may be a little close to home for me) – perhaps it’s because I have family members dealing with dementia but it seems there are so many books about it at the moment.

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    • I’m sorry to hear about that – aside from the insight gained from this book, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must be like.
      The book is lovely, but if it’s a hard topic for you to read about I wouldn’t rush out to read it – it’s pretty personal both in terms of the mother’s mental state and how Mortier and his family deal with it. Having said that, there might also be some comfort found in reading it.

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