‘Other children had imaginary friends; I had a fictional mother, a siren from the southern hemisphere.’
Daisy Goodwin’s mother left home when Daisy was five and embarked upon a bohemian life in Swanage. Daisy was brought up by her respectable father and her meticulous German stepmother and adored her glamorous mother from afar. She made sense of her mother’s difference and of her absence through her imaginings about the family’s unstable South American history. It was only when Daisy underwent a deep depression following the birth of her own daughter, that she felt the weight of her mother’s abandonment and the burden of her family’s past take root in her own life.
Daisy’s family, on her mother’s side, is as eccentric and wayward as any family could be. Her Irish forebears – a Catholic and a Protestant – were driven from their southern Irish home and emigrated to Argentina. Their history there is one of vast wealth rapidly acquired and just as rapidly lost, of gambling, of horses, of suicides and breakdowns, of isolation in the bleak expanses of the Pampas and of the heights of high society. In this extraordinary memoir, the contrasts between Argentina and England serve as a metaphor for the clashes in the author’s life, caught between two parents, two countries and two cultures. Intensely personal, funny and unsentimental, ‘Silver River’ explores universal questions about families, identity and growing up in a way that has never been done before.
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‘From the opening sentence of “Silver River”, it is clear that Daisy Goodwin can catch a reader by the throat…an intriguing memoir.’ TLS
‘Goodwin, who threads her family saga with her own experience of near suicidal depression and her need to make sense of her mother’s decision to abandon her as a child, is a disarmingly skilful storyteller…A beautifully realised book, suspended delicately and precisely between memoir and magical realism.’ Sunday Times
‘“Silver River” runs bright and clear, a quick and vital current of self-awareness by a natural storyteller who uses literary styles and devices with a deft hand. From the first terror of being dangled over a cliff by her father, greatly amusing her mother, to her depression and sense of abandonment after the birth of her daughter, Goodwin artfully integrates the disparate sections of her life, emerging whole and healed.’ The TimesFrom the Author:
Researching your family history has become very fashionable of late thanks to the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? I think there is a hunger in our increasingly deracinated society to find a story that crosses the generations and gives us some common ground with our forebears. When I was writing Silver River I was constantly amazed at how patterns kept repeating themselves. I think on every level you have to examine the past in order to understand the present.
Finding out the bare bones of your family genealogy is much easier now that so much material is available online. I was very lucky in that one of my Argentinian cousins had already compiled a family tree. But names and dates are one thing, turning the names on parish registers and on the faded ink captions of old photograph albums into living, breathing people is quite another. The great biographer Richard Holmes says that if you want to get inside another person's head you have to see the world as they saw it, which can mean on foot or even on horseback. My understanding of what the lives of my Traill ancestors were like grew exponentially after a day riding across the Pampas. I had a much more vivid sense of the daily ordeal that was the life of my Victorian great-great-grandmother after a day wearing a whalebone corset. There is no substitute for going to see for yourself what is left of the places where your family once lived. I went to Skull in southwest Ireland expecting not much more than changeable weather and discovered that while the Rector of Skull was just a story to me, he was still a subject of intense debate in the town where he lived and died. Although his house had long since been pulled down, the site it once occupied was obviously prime real estate, not only because of the scenic view of the bay but also because it had a clear view of any possible attackers - an essential feature for an Anglo-Irish parsonage in the heart of Catholic Ireland.
I was fortunate my family had already documented themselves so thoroughly: finding the Rector of Skull's diary and my grandmother's letters really fired my imagination. My one regret is that I did not spend more time talking to my grandmother about her childhood while she was alive. I think anybody who is even remotely interested in their antecedents should spend as much time with the oldest generation in their family as they can, preferably with a tape recorder. It is worth doing a little research before you talk to them so that you can press them on things that might have been conveniently `forgotten'. I found over and over again that much repeated family stories had been so polished in the telling that the original truth had been quite overlaid. Memories tend to follow well-worn grooves so being able to throw up a few factual obstacles is no bad thing. Never accept a family memory verbatim, always check your facts if you can, as all families, happy ones and unhappy ones, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Philip Larkin wrote in his famous poem `This Be the Verse' that `Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.' After my foray into the history of my mother's family, I thoroughly agree. But I think that the research that I did and the process of writing the book itself have done something to arrest that process of emotional erosion. That, at least, is my defence against the charges laid against me by members of my family that this book is simply washing dirty laundry in public. Looking into your family history can be very rewarding, but if you write about it, as I have done, you must be prepared for Rashomon-like divergence between the accounts of the same event within your own family. My brother swears that he was the one who doctored the Mars Bar and was punished accordingly, while I can vividly remember it happening to me. My mother and my erstwhile stepfather both have no recollection of his threats to throw me over the cliff and yet my brother and I both remember it clearly.
So while it can be both absorbing and illuminating to turn a family tree into a story, it is not something to undertake lightly. I wrote Silver River because I felt I had to understand why my childhood was as peculiar as it was. But my understanding has come at a price. My hope is that readers will learn from this book that sometimes the route to understanding is to look back rather than inwards.
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