'I have a ring, a string of pearls, a locket and a gold heart. These I wear. The papers are piled around my desk, tied with the thread she made, along with the notebooks I kept of our conversations during that strange last summer. Through this patchy evidence I piece together the story of Poppy who was born in 1924, daughter of China and Jack, wife of Richard, lover of Marcus, mother of May and Phoebe and me. That is how we mark a woman, by her kin and progeny. But it doesn't tell me who she was.'
In Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska sets out to collect and sort the evidence of her mother's life. But when the facts refuse to give up their secrets, she follows the threads of history and memory into imagination. There she teases out the story of Poppy, who married at twenty and sang to her children until, suddenly one day in 1959, she was taken away to a sanatorium.
What had gone wrong in a family that everyone described as happy? What pulled Poppy through the years of shock treatment and despair? These are some of the questions her daughter must ask before she can make peace with her own past. In accepting the force of both history and fiction, the biographer-daughter becomes as vulnerable as her subject, drawing the reader into her reflections on the resilience of love, and on the nature of family, faith and friendship.
" After my mother died, I took a lot of leave and wrote draft after draft of the book that would become Poppy. I hauled myself up from the griefs of that time, returning to the desk day after day, and it took all the courage I could find."
Poppy is a magnificent piece of writing that succeeds in showing a highly intelligent woman, who attempts to live up to traditional ideals of motherhood and nurturing, breaking down and experiencing a new metamorphosis. The book is beautifully written and Modjeska shows an unexpected mastery of social comedy in the midst of a narrative as preoccupied with the soul as with a complex womanhood that feminism stands apart from but must acknowledge.
Put bluntly, this is a wonderful book, and I have worried about how my review could do it justice. To relate the bare bones of the story would give no idea of the richness of the text, the ingenuity of the narrative or, most importantly, its deep emotional range.
Her prose is vivid, whether conveying the lushness of the English countryside, the grandeur of the Australian coast or the gritty camaraderie of inner Sydney life. She handles the big picture but doesn't overlook the small, telling details of people's lives. The combination is rare; the result an extremely moving yet intellectually challenging work.
Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy is about her mother. To say this, however, is to say next to nothing about the real depths of the book. It is about women in the modern world, about mothers and daughters, husbands, lovers, work and the new life that comes with middle age. It is a ruminative, puzzling, questing book which pushes back the frontiers. Its candour is very brave.
Most biographers stay outside their subjects and do not trespass on their inner lives. They get the events rights, no doubt, but they leave you wondering what went on inside the head or heart. Novelists tell you more but novelists make it up. Modjeska is not afraid to cross the line between fact and fiction and to use the techniques of fiction to explore her mother's inner life.