This storyline revolves around one family, it’s growth, decay and ultimate demise. Unlikeable characters, time jumps and a rather uniquely honest retell of the complex relationship between a mother and daughter takes the reader to a place otherwise left unexposed.
I was immediately curious when I read the premise of this book. Not because of a thrilling plot line, or because of the promise of hooks twists and turns. This book doesn’t really do that. How It Was shows the reader the layered complications of being a woman ‘of a certain era’ and how that can lead to barriers in relationships. With husbands. With friends. With children.
The housewife is an ultimately wholesome figure in our Western history. But she is also often silenced. The gig is lonely, often thankless, and the quiet resentment and agitation that builds slowly over years of routine and simplicity is accutely felt in this story.
Marion, the Matriarch and main character, is unlikeable. She is. Her impulse control is frayed, her insight into herself is void of any reflective practice and she demonstrates her love through a series of spiteful tests and walls constructed to prove a pre determined point already decided upon.
As the plot unravels we see the way Marion removes her hands from the wheel, allowing a precarious situation to unravel. Unenthusiastic even in her defiance and appearing to only destroy her routine and comfort out of opportunity and carelessness, Marion demonstrates what damage can be achieved by those who act in spite.
The conflict of a mother watching her daughter grow into a woman is something I have heard before, but the raw and primal responses described in this book were new to me. I am quite certain they are not experienced by every mother, to be clear. However, Janet Ellis describes a sharp dislike by Marion towards her daughter in a way that jars with normal expectations of maternal love. It feels authentic and as if the only wrong her daughter Sarah has done to Marion is to flourish into adolescence while Marion feels the stagnation of her post. The lack of communication, the lack of trust, is stark and of its era, but it is deeply sad and incredibly well articulated.
The same can be said for the relationship between Marion and her husband. The silence that exists in the relationship, the fatigue that settles between them, makes you want to cry out in frustration. The intentional barrier crossing and tension feeling remarks and actions are just so normalised in the dialogue but it still sits so poorly and made me feel angry at how dissatisfying being either party would be in this relationship. Which, ultimately, is excellent work by Ellis.
How It Was ends in a way that made me sit back, put the book in my lap and go ‘hah. Of course.’ It is satisfying and an enjoyable read. I did become a little frustrated reading Sarah’s journal entries as I dont think Ellis quite got the voice right every time. But she did throw in an incredibly powerful tool, setting the reader up to hear something said to Sarah which, when you hear her tell her mother the words spoken genuinely made me gasp and sigh in disappointment at the whole situation.
I would strongly recommend this book and enjoyed becoming enveloped in their life. It made me grateful for my relationship with my own mother and grateful for my life stage and perspective on things.