Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman
Tahar is sitting at his mother’s bedside listening to her long-hidden secrets and stories unfold. Lalla Fatma has dementia. She is confused about where and when she’s living. As the novel plays out she frequently digresses back to her childhood in Fez in the 1940s. She’s no longer aware that she’s actually living in Tangier in 2000. In a series of snapshots from her past she talks about her three arranged marriages, her children, her extended family and the friendships she’s had across the years. These flashback scenes were my favourite parts of About My Mother. They are rich with detail and offer a real insight into Moroccan culture, illuminating practices and beliefs I’ve never come across before. In the first half of the novel these flashback sections provide a structure for the narrative, separating the past and the present into distinct chapters. As the novel progresses and Lalla Fatma’s condition becomes worse, time becomes a muddier concept. We flick between past and present at a dizzying speed and the narrative alternates between the impressions and memories of Lalla Fatma and her son.
The text is often disjointed and difficult to follow, mimicking the old woman’s confusion. There are painfully accurate descriptions of how the dementia has affected her temperament. She is particularly harsh towards her live-in carer, a close family friend, and struggles to abandon her independence as she becomes more and more dependent on others for her everyday care. There are also a number of very believable but nonetheless upsetting descriptions of how the aging process has negatively impacted Lalla Fatma’s physicality. Her memories of her own early sexual experiences and her young body contrast sharply with the descriptions of how age and infirmity have left her physical diminished, bedridden and incontinent.
About My Mother is not an easy read. There are very few moments of levity in the text. It is an intense novel exploring both dementia and female identity within a patriarchal oppressive society. However, what shone through for me was the beautiful language and effortless descriptions of Moroccan culture which conjured up a striking picture of a country I’ve only once visited, but instantly loved. I also found the relationship between Tahar and his mother an incredibly moving one. There’s a deep and clear bond between the two which allows them to find points of connection throughout Lalla Fatma’s illness, right up until the moment of her death.
About My Mother was published by Telegram in 2016