A Song for Bridget by Phyllis Whitsell

A mother’s love.

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It’s not new for readers to be confronted by tales of young Irish women enslaved and raped by their drunken and misogynistic fathers or brothers. Neither is it a revelation to hear about a young woman fleeing across the Irish Sea to England. And there are many books where ‘Sunday mass is the ‘moral censor and the emotional comforter for all of us’. Phyllis Whitsell’s books are different because they are based on herself and her mother: a history painfully lived and then painstakingly researched both around Birmingham and in Tipperary.

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Community nurse, Whitsell, knowing that she was adopted, decided, aged 23, to find her mother, Bridget Mary. When she found the woman known as Tipperary Mary she nursed and supported the ‘bag lady’ over the course of many years. Wearing her uniform, and seeming to be an outreach worker, Whitsell was able to give informal succour to her mother without revealing what their true relationship was. That’s quite an extraordinary story and is told in Whitsell’s memoirs, My Secret Mother and Finding Tipperary Mary.

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Bridget Larkin in the nursing home in which she spent her final days.

In the epilogue to her latest book, A Song for Bridget, Whitsell summarises her years caring for her mother and explains that Bridget Mary never fully understood that her nurse was Phyllis, herself a mother to three children. Bridget was befuddled by alcohol and onsetting dementia so was unable to take her place in the family. But at least this meant that she could not compute the death of her own son, Billy, from a heroin overdose.

Whitsell is at pains to counsel the reader about prejudicial attitudes towards addicts, explaining that behind every case ‘there is emotional and psychological pain and trauma’. Her compassion is unstinting towards the birth mother who handed her over to an orphanage at nine months. There is no shadow of blame or resentment in her attitude and this might be because her adoptive mother Mary Bridget was able to fill the void left by the loss of Bridget Mary.

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Whitsell with her three children in 1992.

Whitsell opens A Song for Bridget with a letter from herself, ‘Little Phyllis’, written, on February 22nd 2018, to her late mother. In it Whitsell explains to her ‘dear Mum’ how over nine years, as she ministered to cuts and bruises, she also listened to ‘snippets and anecdotes’ which were ‘the fragments of your story’.

 

Welding them together with, ghostwriter Cathryn Kemp, Whitsell presents an organised account of Bridget’s chaotic life. It is endearing that the co-authors adopt the first person for their account as if they are offering understanding even in the way they structure the narrative.

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Phyllis Whitsell, aged 6, at her confirmation

It is hard to believe that the ‘roaring drunk’, pub-brawler was once a nine-year-old child racing down the streets of Templemore on her way back from school. Facing Bridget at home was a cold range and no smell of bubbling vegetable stew. Upstairs her mother had just given birth to a fifth child, Philomena. Soon after that Bridget was removed from school to look after her baby half-sister. She loved Philomena and many years later named her own daughter, Phyllis, after her.

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Phyllis Whitsell as a young nurse

The story that Bridget Larkin told Phyllis Whitsell is one of cruelty and treachery. Every family member either willingly or unwillingly deserted the young woman. The Catholic Church and other institutions removed child after child: Kieran, Phyllis, Angela, Billy and Jimmie. All the babes were taken from Bridget’s protesting arms.   But one returned to her and offered the love and care that she needed. That was Phyllis Whitsell and this account is the final chapter chronicling the life of Tipperary Mary.

Works cited

Whitsell, P. with Cathryn Kemp.  A Song for Bridget.  2018. Mirror Books.

A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 5th May 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

 

 

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What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

 

In her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. She explores cancer, death, race and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.

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Zinzi Clemmons. Photo: Nina Subin

Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.

As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion – that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.

In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.

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The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer, is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and take-away cartons.

In looking at motherhood Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.

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Winnie Mandela with some members of the MUFC.  Image: BBC World Service

Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events such as Obama’s election are documented. These do not seem to be inserted to provide a contextual time-line, but rather to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and is a bit of a stretch from the overarching memorial/ memoir tone of the novel.

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Image: allafrica

What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria. It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical piece submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines, entitled I Lost My Mum to Cancer or I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me.

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Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it really isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.

Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises have been cut and pasted.  It’s a shame because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography to achieve that.

Works cited

Ngozi Adichie, C. Americanah.  Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.

Clemmons, Z. What We Lose. 4th Estate. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of  the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd July 2017.