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Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon

"What is the line between truth-telling and punishment?" This ever-so-subtle boundary is one Mary Gordon struggles to straddle throughout her sometimes touching, occasionally chilling new memoir, Circling My Mother.

The O. Henry Prize–winning author chronicles the century-spanning life of her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, and the result is one part tribute, one part reckoning as the author reaches an epiphany, realizing that "the work of mourning is an honorable job," one whose "wages [must be] paid." Those wages are paid—and then some—in this finely wrought book, perfect for anyone revisiting their own mother's life, and Gordon poignantly confides that, ultimately, the only way for her to "prevent her [mother's] disappearance" is to write about her.

Turning the lens away from self—and back to parental figures—is becoming a trademark among boomer-age memoirists, and critically acclaimed writers such as Vivian Gornick (Fierce Attachments) have also tread upon the hallowed ground of filial love with unforgettable results. And what a tour de force Gordon's homage proves to be!

The eldest of the five Gagliano sisters (there were nine children in all), Gordon's mother was a woman "unarmored by cruelty," living a life in which, in truth, a little armor might have gone a long way. For Anna, it was a difficult childhood, growing up in a clutch of siblings who all had "the quick rage of starvelings" after never receiving enough attention from their overburdened immigrant parents.

Long considered to be one of the foremost "Catholic writers" of her generation, in this memoir Gordon breaks out of that paradigm to offer a precise, finely crafted exploration into the life of a woman courageous enough to face life no matter what obstacles would ultimately come her way. And the obstacles were many. Beset with polio at an early age, the disabled Anna nonetheless swept out the door every morning in a crisp suit to her job as a well-respected legal secretary. (Gordon explains that "boss" is one of the first words she learned as a baby.) Widowed at an early age, saddled with paying for the education of her siblings, and put in charge of her own ailing mother's household debts, Anna never had time to dabble in self-pity.

Despite all her responsibilities, Anna had little Mary by her side as much as possible; still, Gordon conveys to readers a sense that her mother was not as tender as she might have liked, except when they sang together, clearly some of the author's fondest memories. "Why did you have to wait for song to let me know what was clearly your great, your heartbreakingly tender love?" she asks. And what the prose in Circling My Mother does best is offer a sure-footed sense of pain—a gritty, useful sort of pain—in the re-creation of Gordon's own girlhood miseries: first, after the death of her much-adored father and later, in her chronicle of the horrific cruelty of several ruthless aunts.

The portion of the book dedicated to these aunts is where Gordon proves herself an exacting (and in all honesty, delicious) practitioner of end-game literary vengeance. Displaying the same hash-settling depth that Gordon's great Catholic literary forebear, Mary McCarthy, showcased in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the author explains that writing this homage to her mother is also another way of honoring a promise she made herself long ago. "One day," Gordon wrote, she vowed "in her heart" to "expose the murderous true heart of my aunt . . . The Destroyer." She credits her aunt Rita with destroying the latter half of Anna's life with her grave cruelty, and she intends to even the psychic scorecard, even after both women lie "ash and skeleton" in their graves.

Gordon, who often trots out what can only be termed a rather complex classification system for what constitutes a "good" versus "bad" death, clearly had blood banging in her ears when she chronicled the horrific end of Aunt Rita. And there seems a great deal of truth to Gordon's assertion that Rita's death was as Dante-inspired as any possibly could be. For, after enslaving her niece in constant, cleaning projects as a girl, the elderly woman "lost her hysterical fastidiousness . . . [and] . . . refused to bathe . . . [and] . . . stopped using the toilet."

Gordon's prose turns near-liturgical when she is forced, finally, to discuss the way her mother's body disintegrated at the end of her life. While the author seems willing to acknowledge that she is flouting all the moral codes of her youth to confide that "the idea of death was preferable to the task of continually tending my mother's rotting feet," these are admissions she seems willing to make in the name of artistic sacrifice.

These passages, cruel in their own way, might make even the most loyal reader waiver momentarily. There is a great deal of painful territory here that may be too fierce for some: end-of-life issues, alcoholism, and the harsh realities of caring for elderly parents. Ultimately, however, Gordon's prose—itself transcendent—is what offers readers welcoming islands of beauty in an otherwise austere account of an unforgettable woman.

Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kansas, book critic.

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