It probably goes without saying that you have to be in a certain mood to read a book which graphically details the death of an elderly woman from cancer. Commendable and moving though such efforts are, I Should Have Lifted You Carefully Over, Wencke Mühleisen’s autobiographical account of her mother’s sad demise, will be to many akin to Schindler’s Ark: brilliant when they first read it, but not something they’ll be likely to pick up again.
This doesn’t detract from how very brilliant this book is. The opening, half-page chapters are harrowing; unmerciful descriptions of rotting flesh, suffocation and faeces, with the reader spared little of the writer’s pain. Worst of all is the realisation that it is a pain many of us will endure at some point in life.
… the poisoned spectre hanging over all Mühleisen’s recollections.
Mühleisen is aware that heartfelt and relatable as such passages are, they aren’t enough to grip our short attention spans. The most riveting sections of the book are those detailing her Norwegian childhood, a world before both her, her mother and her siblings were crippled by age and disease. It describes her mother’s sense of loving but bitter devotion to her duties as a housewife. Her father in contrast was a distant figure, not without affection but shackled by his past as a soldier in the German army during World War 2 – an experience he refuses to speak about, leaving his family to wildly speculate.
This very refusal to talk of his motives or experiences is the poisoned spectre hanging over all Mühleisen’s childhood recollections. As an expert in gender and sexuality studies working at the University of Stavanger in Norway, the rage at the patriarchy of her family and her father’s still-lingering influence on her dying mother are palpable, ensuring the reader is given little respite from the family’s ordeal. All this makes for a riveting yet deeply dispiriting read.
…uncomfortable and uncompromising as the subject matter is.
I Should Have Lifted You Carefully Over is ultimately a hauntingly beautiful narrative, translated immaculately from the original Norwegian transcript. Yet many of us in our 20s or younger will be tempted to put it away on a high-placed shelf at first glance, uncomfortable and uncompromising as the subject matter is. Yet the sad message of Mühleisen’s work is that children eventually take their parents’ places as guardians and carers of helpless dependents. As young people, perhaps we should accept that sooner rather than later.
I Should Have Lifted You Carefully Over is published by Sandstone Press and is available for £7.99.
Image courtesy of Wencke Mühleisen