Skip to content

The Mistress's Daughter

By Hilary Spurling

Part-way through this book, AM Homes meets her double in the person of the man who fathered and abandoned her after a casual affair nearly half a century ago. He is pink-cheeked, white-haired and fancy-suited with thick legs and stubby hands like paws. 'He is my exact replica, the male version of me.'

A few pages later, she comes across a newspaper photo of his daughter, her legitimate half-sister (who has no idea that Homes exists). 'I see her fat thighs, her belly, her feet, her outstretched hand and it is my thigh, my belly, my feet, my hand.' The sinister thing is that this woman is sitting in a local McDonald's with her small daughter got up in a Barbie outfit. Homes's best-known story, 'A Real Doll', is about a boy dating and eventually raping his sister's Barbie doll. 'I was being ironic; she is being serious.'

This confrontation between two sisters or, rather, the collision it represents between two fantasies - one profoundly ironic, the other just as profoundly serious - is the core of this book. The Mistress's Daughter is an account by a novelist famously hostile to autobiography of parallel encounters as an adult with her birth parents. 'It's a memoir ... about two people I never knew and it's about a life I never had,' she says. 'It kind of becomes a Beckett thing.'

Beckettian Barbies are the natural inhabitants of Homes's literary landscape. The three leading characters preparing to meet one another in her memoir all behave like teenagers on a first date. Homes and her birth mother Ellen initially make contact through phone calls ('they are seductive, addictive, punishing'). The pair exchange flowers, cuddly toys, notes, cards and confidences. The mother grows steadily more demanding. Plans for a trip to the zoo spiral into full-scale takeover. '"Why won't you see me?" she whines. "You should adopt me - and take care of me," she says.'
Parent and child swap roles. Ellen comes to meet her daughter wearing the fluffy fur bolero, slacks and high-piled hairdo of her Fifties generation. 'I suspect this is the way she must have dressed when she used to meet my father ... I feel suddenly defensive ... I sense I am not measuring up.'

Like her father before her, Homes backtracks for fear of being swallowed whole. 'After the millionth phone call, I ask Ellen to stop calling.' Homes meanwhile embarks on a separate liaison with her father, who is critical of his long-lost daughter's dress sense and all too clearly unimpressed by her professional career. She worries about her looks and what to wear for their secret assignations ('I want his approval').

They meet in cheap hotels where she imagines undressing for him and knows he is imagining it, too. Both have visions of her being accepted by his family, a daydream hastily abandoned after a single brief encounter with his wife.

Homes knows well enough that, rationally speaking, she would have been unlikely to survive with either parent ('The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up'). But her imagination listens to the siren song of unreason. Stalked by her mother, she stalks her father, posting herself outside his house, picturing the life inside, pretending to be part of it. Dissatisfaction with her own adoptive parents - fond, anxious presences hovering on the outskirts of this story - comes to a crisis in a fearful passage when Homes parks her car on a Christmas visit home and sits brooding in the carport: 'I am in front of the house, the only house we ever lived in, in front of my family... I am so angry, so sad, hating everyone for who they are and for everything they are not. It is the rising of emotion, everything I can't articulate begins whirling inside me... I am gunning the engine, wishing I'd take my foot off the brake; the car is straining under my foot. The car... wants to go forward, to hurl itself blindly through the wall and into the kitchen. I picture the cabinets emptying out, dishes breaking, the engine punching through the back of the refrigerator, a headlight coming through the crisper door.'

It is the quintessential American dream with Homes at 32 playing the aggressive and destructive teenage dreamer. Her foothold on the volcanic shifting inner levels of reality was precarious from the start. In moods like this, it threatens to give way altogether. Anger spurts from terror. 'I grew up furious,' she writes at the beginning of her book and, near the end, after her birth mother's premature death and her father's final bleak rejection: 'What bubbles beneath is rage - nuclear-hot rage.'

The first half of this book is a startling, sometimes shocking voyage of discovery. In the second, Homes puts herself through what Germaine Greer, in an equally unforgiving memoir of her unsatisfactory father, calls the bureaucratic mincer. Archives are combed, libraries ransacked, the web comprehensively dug over. Bloodlines flow in from Russia, Europe, England and all over America. Family history becomes a painful and protracted process of resuscitation.

What is unexpected is the sheer violence of the operation. Piecing and holding together an identity turns into a bodily ordeal as drastic as fainting or spewing up. Homes is consumed by fear of invisibility, disintegration, obliteration. Chaos and confusion suck her under. At times, she can barely breathe; at others, her body chills and stiffens like a corpse. Chemicals flood her system. She feels herself evaporating, imploding, folding into nothingness 'like origami'.

The Mistress's Daughter turns truth into a fable for the 21st century in much the same way as Nabokov's Lolita did for the 20th or Baudelaire's vision of being haunted by his double for the 19th. It thrives on the tangled roots of fact and fiction. It articulates and makes a kind of poetry out of a mundane predicament central to our fluid, fissile, fractured world: 'I am the product of a sex life, not a relationship.'

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007