Monday, July 30, 2007

Marian Jane Williams reviews When Madeline Was Young

Madeline is forever young and beautiful. In her youth she suffered an accident which left her with the body of a beautiful mature woman but the intellect of a child of seven. To Mac, the narrator of the story, she has always been his elder sister who needs both protection and care, but on one of the many summers which his large extended family spend together, his cousin Buddy informs him that Madeline is not his sister but his father’s first wife.

When his father re-married, his second wife (Mac’s mother) had no hesitation in letting Madeline stay within the household being cared for as one of her own children. Through the years the family have gatherings, celebrations and get togethers, but the differences in their political beliefs and social attitudes eventually lead to distance developing between the two branches of the family.

In 2003 when Mac is a middle aged doctor with a family of his own, he attends the funeral of Buddy’s son who has been killed in Iraq. Buddy and Mac symbolize the divisions of the family – Buddy the army careerist and Mac the medical man - the hawk and the dove. But it is at the funeral that they both come to fully appreciate the other’s attitude and life choices.

Jane Hamilton writes an epic family saga in which Madeline is ever present, but it is really Mac’s story and by using first person narrative it reads as a memoir. He grew up in a family with almost saintly patience whilst Buddy’s family was far more earthy and practical. Mac bridges the two branches of the family and through childhood memories, half glimpsed occurrences, not fully understood actions plus his own thoughts and experiences, he tries to piece together and understand his parents’ lives and their boundless love for Madeline and their family. At the same time he also tries to fathom his own shortcomings and the reasons for the family split.

Anybody who has come from a large family where cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents all play their part in the great swell and tide of close family emotions will appreciate Hamilton’s story telling. The small, almost insignificant pleasures and woes, the relationships, tragedies, sacrifices, loyalties and betrayals of family life are keenly observed and make for interesting reading. The differences which can develop from a word here, an action or non action there, and the effect these can have on children growing up within the family are finely drawn, but her true strength is her compassion and understanding of the human heart and the human condition.

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton, Published by Doubleday, £14.99

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