Welcome to the second instalment of WWreads. This book comes with a warning: if you have tears, prepare to shed them. (But you should read it, because it is breathtakingly honest, unstinting in its truth and beautifully written.
Imagine for a moment (like the woman who pretends she’s being interviewed on Woman’s Hour about her bestseller) that you’re writing your memoir. How much do you share? Edited highlights that show you in your best light with the odd failing thrown in for the sake of veracity? Enough to make it revealing, but not so much that you give away your darkest secrets?
Of course a memoir is, by its nature, always going to be partial. But how about laying yourself bare? Grief, sex, danger, love, despair, the darkness inside you. Perhaps this is the only way to write a truly honest account – the standard by which memoirs ought to be judged?
In which case, Clover Stroud has excelled with The Wild Other. It is a brave, beautiful book that will break your heart a little.
Clover was just 16 when her idyllic bohemian childhood (wildflower meadows, a rambling old house, horses and tumble of siblings) was shattered. Her beloved mother, Charlotte – the Chanel No 5-scented sun around which her five children revolved (“I never wanted her to mind her own business. I always wanted her there.”) – was catastrophically injured in a riding accident which left her brain damaged and unable to communicate. There is a moment when it is clear that the surgeon who saves her life (a “butcher with big hands”) and continues to operate, despite her husband’s insistence, is confident that in delivering Charlotte alive, his job here is done. What becomes clear is that she – and the family – are instead locked into a living-hell. For Charlotte does not recover: “no death…no real life either”.
There is an interesting debate to be had here about when a life is worth saving. Just because you can, does that mean you should? Clover spends 22 years first willing her mother into a semblance of recovery and life, and then resigned to visiting her with love that sees nothing in return. There is one moment when Clover admits she is beyond “feeling envious of Mum’s nurses…they were the ones Mum turned to”. I was both heartbroken for her and furious with the surgeon who, god-like, fixed but did not heal.
Having bargained with God to keep Charlotte alive, Clover now finds herself in a dreadful state of abeyance. Denied the closure of death and with a mother who cannot connect, she seeks solace by exploring her limits. Sex, danger, darkness, men, love – Clover lives fully, consumes experiences as though seeking to blot out the grief; distract her mind by pushing her body to its limits.
She does not stop riding. Quite the contrary – she flings herself into it. First in Ireland, where she lives with travellers, then in the wilds of Texas – where she chafes against the notion that girls can’t work on ranches and sets out to prove herself. Girls – it transpires – definitely do not break horses. I defy anyone not to cheer when Clover gets her spurs.
And then there is the sex, “a refuge I’ve used as a way of hurting myself”. It, too, is fast and furious and at times dangerous. There is a cowboy, a Cossack (of course there is), a husband who struggles with alcoholism. Finally there is Pete “part of my heart…the rhythm of my body” who makes Clover own and love the darkness inside. He is there when Charlotte does, eventually, die and Clover can at last “smash through the glass wall of grief I’d been living pressed up against for the past twenty-two years”. And we leave her with him and their five children (two from her first marriage), about whom she writes with a fierce tenderness that had me sitting by my own children’s bedsides, watching them as they slept.
To reduce this to a book about “mumsaccident” as 16-year-old Clover calls it, is too simplistic. It’s about marriage, family, alcoholism, fear, friendship, courage, post-natal depression (an incredibly powerful portrait thereof), birth, motherhood, coming to terms with yourself. Above all it is about learning to live, even in the shadow of death, and the heart’s capacity to love.
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