READERS of a national newspaper have recently been filling its letters pages with accounts of clearing out their parents’ homes. Boxes marked: “holey cardigans”, “photos — people I can’t remember”, and, especially, “keys I can’t use” are among items discovered.
In Marina Warner’s case, the diaries, rolls of camera film, a cigarette tin, powder compact, and records that she discovered when her mother, Ilia, died were among the metaphorical keys that she used to unlock the past. Here in this volume, she explores a common experience, but in telling it illuminates vividly its underside: rummaging through your dead parents’ belongings is not only a revisiting of family history, but also a frequently uncomfortable journey into private territory.
Warner’s father, Esmond, son of rather faded English gentry, met Ilia in southern Italy, where he was serving during the Second World War. While, for the reader, it is Warner’s account of life in post-war Egypt — where her parents moved when Esmond opens a W. H. Smith bookshop in Cairo — which seems exotic, to Ilia, married life in England is also strange. She and Esmond are practically strangers when they wed; while he remains in the army, she moves into his parents’ London mansion flat. She struggles to understand their English and to cope with their boiled-cabbage food.
There was certainly glamour attached to Cairo life: a large staffed flat with a cooling verandah, the heat of the day, the cocktails of the night, the sports club, the racecourse, the socialising. Add to this Warner’s fascination with iconography and fairy tales, which she draws on throughout the book, and the reader is taken on a sometimes fantastical magic-carpet journey through her family’s back story.
But reality intrudes. The expat British and French own many of Cairo’s businesses, while the Egyptians are increasingly restless at these last vestiges of colonialism. As it is the 1950s, there is another lingering oppression, too: women little more than ornaments to adorn their husbands’ arms. The department stores where they buy their silks and perfumes are razed to the ground in a guerrilla attack; so is Esmond’s beloved bookshop.
Heartbroken, he writes to his employers, pointing out that British outfits were targeted by groups linked to the Socialist Party, while restaurants, cinemas, and bars — “anywhere you can get alcohol or vice” — were hit by the Muslim Brotherhood, foretelling the hard-line, anti-Western Islamist attitudes that would dominate Egypt decades later.
Egypt, of course, has ancient connections to Christianity, too, and one of Warner’s most fascinating digressions starts with a family visit to where Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child fled in Egypt. There, a tree grew offering balsam, or balm, of the kind that the prophet Jeremiah metaphorically invokes as lacking in Gilead.
Esmond, Warner believes, found balm in Egypt, but for her mother — uprooted from Italy and in a difficult marriage — such solace was more elusive. Even her Catholic faith seems to fail her at the last. One senses that for Warner, moving through these shadows of the past is discomfiting rather than consolation. We readers, though, are the richer for it.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet. Her latest book is Martyrdom (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 18 December 2020).
Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An unreliable memoir
William Collins £16.99
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