“I think I’d forgotten that she had been free before my birth – even joyful (…) that she had once been young and full of dreams (…) her freedom and contentment had become an abstract notion, something I vaguely knew.”
“ (…) the telling of her life’s story was the best remedy she could think of to help bear the weight of her existence.”
A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by the French writer, Édouard Louis in a beautiful translation of Tash Aw is a profoundly moving piece of auto fiction telling a story of the author’s mum, her transformation in the later part of her life, at the same time contemplating the working-class universe. This book explores the meaning of social status, social background where a simple gesture, our way of speaking reveals our social inferiority.
It is also about a fundamental desire of one human being to exist as a woman with her dreams and hopes as opposed to non-existence that’s imposed on her due to the succession of accidents and historic events.
The meaning of the violence is discussed in this book – violence that one experiences when passing from one social class to another because of one’s inability to adapt or to read social codes of the new reality they enter into.
The exploration of SHAME is another subject that Louis explores in his book – ‘shame’ because of one’s social status, poverty, different social norms, one’s parents , their lack of ‘education’ , their lack of fine clothes, fear of being at the bottom of social ladder, repetition of the same destructive patterns by the following generations, experiencing love as the space where only one gives or receives orders.
The language is also presented as an important instrument to mark one’s place on social ladder, how inferior or superior one is forced or entitled to feel; this includes the way one uses the language, words, various expressions.
The world described by Louis is the universe where women are being often humiliated in public, often appear with swollen faces after the arguments with their husbands.
Louis respectfully allows us to have a glimpse into his mum’s life. He also recalls his grandma’s life and other women he has met. Those women have lived the modest existence consisting of cooking, cleaning, ‘while the men talk and help themselves to more wine’, frequent visits to food banks, emotional suffocation, being subjected to domestic violence and all sorts of social violence and humiliation, social housing being the only option, industrial grey town, where the only way to get out of the vicious circle of poverty is ‘to find another man’, constant suffering , odd physically and psychologically demanding jobs such as helper, washing elderly people, cater, cleaner.
“She had met a social worker the previous day and learned that there were programmes run by the state for families like ours who couldn’t afford to go on vacation. She began to hope. (…) My father continues to make fun of her, but she did not give up. (…) My father said that he wouldn’t go with us, (…) but nothing he said mattered to her at this stage: she looked down on him now, thanks to her victory over him.”
This is also about liberation where the perception of life can change when we use different words to describe the world around us.
Édouard Louis’s book is an intimate tale of HOPE, presenting ‘happiness’ and liberation as something with many meanings depending on the station at which we are currently in life.
I highly recommend this book and other books by Édouard Louis – he has such a deep level of sensitivity and empathy for people and world, with ability to observe the reality in all its multifaceted complexity.
“She was happy to have become a woman who bought clothes, to be doing, as she said herself, what other women do: wearing make-up, taking care of herself, doing her hair. For some people, a woman’s identity is clearly an oppressive one; for her, becoming a woman had been a conquest.”
I would also recommend you another book here Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon where he discusses suffering, pain and shame related to one’s social background. Through showing his personal story of social exclusion, cutting ties with his working class origins, Eribon explores a number of important themes including the history of France over the last 100 years, how France political sphere has changed, how working class people moved from voting for the left-wing to now the right-wing parties.