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My Mother’s Island
by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65)
Curbstone Press, $24.95
2002
238 pages
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  Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)
 
  ANY WOMAN WHO HAS ever had a love-hate relationship with her own mother will recognize truths, both painful and tender, in My Mother’s Island, a novel about a grown daughter keeping watch over her mother’s final days of life.
     Sarah is not an evil person, but when she relates to her mother, she often feels like one. “I hate her. I’m afraid of her,” she tells her husband. Moments later, she says she can’t leave her side because her mother is “so sick and helpless and frightened.”
     Early on in their final relationship with each other, the mother, Reba, seems one-dimensional – difficult, demanding, petulant, manipulative. But Sarah stays with her, day after day. She watches other people relating to her mother on other dimensions besides the one that is all too familiar to her.
     Sometimes she even comes close to understanding this one human being who so traumatized her that she swore never to have children of her own..
     “I don’t want another human being to hate me as much as I hated her,” she says, fearing that the chain of parental failure might be repeated.
     Slowly, as Reba slips increasingly into the simplified state of being a dying person, Sarah comes to realize how many different and complicated facets there are to her mother’s character.
    Still, as humans tend to do, she clings to the hatred that defined her childhood.
     She reconstructs horrible scenes in which her mother treated her cruelly, rejected her, inflicted lasting damage with her punishments. These fade into other childhood scenes of her mother withdrawing from her completely, staring past her as the unreasonable rage dissipates into a state of detached, empty unconcern that is even more frightening.
     Interestingly, Sarah’s husband, Roberto, a psychoanalyst, is able to put a label on this behavior: a sort of “dissociative fugue state.”
Why does this labeling help? What door does it open?
     “There was a name for this eerie exercise of hers that I’d had to contend with all my life,” Sarah muses. “It wasn’t anything I had done wrong.”
     But giving something a name is only a beginning of understanding. Sarah must still contend with her own deeply embedded loathing of the woman she has too often thought of as her bitter enemy.
     “She takes my hand. I steel myself against her touch.”
     Yet even when Sarah is at her most reluctant, still she is there, and Reba takes her presence at face value. She accepts Sarah unconditionally. Finally. After so many years.
     “You are my light. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Reba tells her now.
     Even though there is never any doubt as to how the story will end — well, hardly any doubt — the author’s skillful development of her first-person narrator’s self-awareness keeps one interested from beginning to end.
     Sarah is so very imperfect, so determined to be both honest and compassionate, and so ultimately needy and giving at the same time, that she makes a powerful character study.
     By giving voice to the other characters as they relate to Sarah and her mother — the husband, the mother’s friends, the poor residents of the Puerto Rican neighborhood where her mother lives — Mueller shows how Sarah is changing toward them as she gains insight into matters of love and hate and the finality of death.
     The sweet, enduring relationships Reba has developed with her friends and neighbors provide a cheerful, sometimes even funny, contrast to the sadness of the central story. And the lush, tropical atmosphere of Puerto Rico enhances that contrast.
     As Sarah and Reba talk about things they’ve never mentioned, Sarah reluctantly comes to realize things about her father that she had never let herself understand. She hears secrets from her mother’s past. And she comes to know how much her mother sacrificed, as women often do, to support her father’s goals.
     But still, how could she ever forgive a mother who, for example, once locked her own child inside a hot car for hours and never admitted to doing anything wrong? Sarah was left believing: “My mommy hates me. I almost died and she doesn’t care, and she doesn’t even feel sorry.”
     Not every problem can be resolved, not every memory can be forgiven, and some parts of every human being will forever be imperfect. How this knowledge changes Sarah gives the story its force.
Sharon Dirlam, journalist, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.
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