In her absorbing family memoir, Elaine Kalman Naves explores the complex territory of the mother-daughter relationship. The story, partly set in Hungary against the tumult leading up to the Second World War, follows into exile a Jewish family that has miraculously survived the Holocaust.
In the early chapters of Shoshanna's Story, Elaine Kalman Naves's child-narrator charms us with a precocious curiosity and insight beyond her years. Though the book purports to be primarily about Naves's mother, for the majority of the book we follow the young Ilushka (the author's girlhood name) through the adventures and disappointments of a normal childhood. It isn't until the last chapter that we actually get the straight story on Shoshanna, unfiltered by the narrator's perspective. Far from being a flaw, this structure brilliantly demonstrates how difficult it sometimes is to know exactly whose stories we tell. And it adds weight to the idea that going home, in whatever form, is always "a sinking into the psychic upholstery."
The memoir opens with five-year-old Ilushka asking Shoshanna how babies get inside their mother's tummy. Making pastry, Shoshanna brushes the question aside. "Don't ask me about this. When you're old enough I will tell you all you need to know." When the teenage Ilushka finally gets her answer, it isn't about the birds and the bees. It's about how the unborn Ilushka pushed Shoshanna into choosing between two men - her legal husband just back from the war and the man with whom she unknowingly committed bigamy, the one who impregnated her.
At 16, the author is writing in her diary about her boyfriend. Shoshanna hovers nearby, saying that she never kept any secrets from her mother. When that doesn't make her daughter spill the beans about what she's writing, Shoshanna tries another tactic. Referring to the decision she made between her two husbands, Shoshanna says accusingly, "It was you, you, who made up my mind for me."
After her mother explains her reasoning for giving up the man she loved for the man she knew would never leave her, Elaine storms out of the room. "As the implications of her accusation sank in," Naves writes, "I began to seethe. Right. I was to blame. Me, the zygote…because I had somehow managed to get her pregnant with myself."
Though it occurred to her much later that her mother may have been lamenting rather than accusing, the adult Elaine doesn't cut her complicated, wounded mother much slack, either. The resentment is always there at how Shoshanna turns every happy occasion into a platform for her memories that start out well but always end up shadowed by the hardships of war, oppression, and anti-Semitism.
Although conflict with the parent is part of every person's individuation process, this memoir aptly demonstrates the well-documented psychological complexities of being the child of a survivor. In Shoshanna's Story, Naves does seem to break from her mother by getting married, having children, writing books, and creating a niche for herself in The Montreal Gazette's Books section. Yet the separate identities of mother and daughter oscillate throughout the memoir until the last chapter entitled "History," where they eerily merge. So steeped have we been in the author's perspective on her mother that when we get to "pure, unadulterated mother," just the facts, it's as though we are reading what happened, personally, to Elaine.
In telling her mother's story, Naves acknowledges the rough outline of her own. And by passing on the stories, she does what she realizes her mother had been doing all her life. "Passing (these stories) on was a kind of exorcism. Repeating them, reciting them, invoking them for an audience was Shoshanna's way of defusing their ghastly hold on her."
Shoshanna's Story is a powerful account of what it's like to deal with the grip that the Holocaust continues to have on successive generations. Elaine Kalman Naves writes elegantly of the struggle to separate the self from the burden of intergenerational memory.
Elizabeth Johnston is books editor for the film magazine POV, and teacher of media writing at Concordia University.