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Making Peace

MY MOTHER'S ISLAND A Novel By Marnie Mueller Curbstone Press: 244 pp., $24.95

April 14, 2002|ADAM HILL | Adam Hill is a professor of writing and literature at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Whether it takes the form of fiction or memoir, a book about a dying parent imposes some rather stubborn limits upon a writer. The forward motion of the plot is essentially predetermined and even sadly familiar (doctors, hospitals, deathbed, mortuary), so that much of the work's momentum must inevitably derive from a journey through memory. This can lead to a kind of narrative inertia that is relieved only when the story revs up toward its inevitable epiphany-laden closure.

For good writers, such limits are but an inviting challenge, large looming obstacles to transcend. And it is no surprise that there have been several books on this subject in recent years, including Michael Ignatieff's "Scar Tissue" and Rick Moody's "Purple America" though, perhaps, Philip Roth's exquisitely moving memoir about his dying father, "Patrimony," best shows how precise attention coupled with subtle insights vanquish any story's inherent hindrance.

Marnie Mueller is a good writer, and with her semiautobiographical novel "My Mother's Island," she has written quite a good book about an adult daughter's struggle to find some source of love for her dying mother. Sarah has come to the island of Puerto Rico, where her mother, Reba, is dying of cancer. The novel alternates between a day-by-day deathwatch told by Sarah and third-person flashbacks of Sarah's relationship with her mother. This strategy might seem merely gimmicky were it not for Mueller's keen ability to portray these two people without easy sentiment or explain them with pop psychology.

Even dying, Reba is a difficult woman to love, unwilling to engage sincere emotion and showing little more than a formal, aloof gratitude to her daughter. In Sarah's childhood, Reba was given to strange fugue states that led to outbursts of physical abuse. Sarah tells us often that she hates her mother, and caring for Reba in her last days is a disruptive burden in her life. It leaves her feeling marooned on her mother's island, and no one, not even her mother's friends nor Sarah's supportive husband, can provide much comfort.

What occurs, then, is the often painful process of role reversal, in which humane duty takes precedent over resentment or guilt. Toward the end, Sarah writes: "She is all bones and loose flesh except over the huge bloated belly that is now as large as a full-term pregnancy. She gave birth to me. I am giving death to her. I am bringing her out of life." So it is in this act of ancient ritual, really, that Sarah can find some solace. Throughout, there are many moments of harrowing tenderness, such as when Sarah has to give her mother injections or shear off her mother's soiled nightgowns. But these things, the reader comes to understand, are what one has to do to strike a truce with the past. It is our duty, born of human love, even an ever-bewildering love.

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