So what do you do when you have a memoir in your hand, but know absolutely nothing about the author? One option is to start Googling so that you have some context into which to slot the biography, and to gauge some sense of authority of the writer. The other is to just read it as a piece of writing, on its own terms, and then Google afterwards. This is the approach I took with ‘Swimming Home’ by Judy Cotton.
So, drawn from this memoir, who is Judy Cotton? She is an artist, based in New York, but born in Australia during WWII in Broken Hill. Her father, later to be the parliamentarian and U.S. ambassador Sir Robert Cotton, trained for the RAAF but was posted to Broken Hill by the Dept of Supply during WWII because of his familiarity with mining. He and his family later shifted to Oberon in NSW to establish a timber industry, another crucial war-time industry. Judy was one of three children born to Robert and his wife Eve. The children were sent to boarding school in Sydney where Judy’s older sister Anne received treatment for crossed-eyes. Her father embarked on a parliamentary career with the Liberal Party and her mother, an accomplished pianist became involved in sheep-breeding. Judy attended university and married a diplomat who was posted to Korea. Her marriage broke up, and she and her son Tim went to Japan, and then to New York where she worked as a journalist and successful artist, until contracting Lyme disease which forced her to change her artistic direction. Her parents moved to America too, when her father was appointed Consul-General in New York between 1978-81 and U.S. Ambassador between 1982-85 before returning with Eve to retirement in Sydney and then Palm Beach. Her mother died in 2000, her father six years later in 2006, having re-married.
All of this sounds quite straightforward, but I have imposed an order that does not exist onto this memoir, thereby leaching it of its power and beauty. You have to work hard as a reader to piece a chronology together: indeed, I could only do it by going back to read it again. The chronology does move forward at a chapter level, but each chapter splinters into shard from different times, identified by year, but fused together. It is more like a mosaic than a canvas. Although a memoir, many aspects of Cotton’s own life are left oblique – her first marriage, her success in New York, her 40 year relationship with Yale.
The book opens in 1923 with ‘Eve’ playing imaginary scales while hiding under the fig tree. She was somewhat in awe of her beautiful older sister Jean, protected by her mother Ollie from her drunken father Archie. We soon learn that ‘Eve’ was Judy Cotton’s mother. And the cracks in the author’s relationship with her mother are quickly revealed:
Eve rated my sister and me by the same terms, and we both lost in the equation. She scored us on looks, clothes and marriages, having decided that achievement in the world was best left to my father. She worked hard to even things up between my sister and me, tying me down by one metaphorical leg so that I could not run faster than my blue-eyed sisterp.14
I must admit that my heart sank a bit when I read this. As I explained in my review of Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter (see my review here), I am not particularly comfortable with the parental memoir genre, and the sense of grievance that seems to pervade it. It’s certainly in evidence in this book, as Cotton stores up the injustices and harsh comments committed by her mother in a form of emotional ledger.
What are Judy Cotton’s accusations against her mother? Sending her two daughters away from their country town in NSW to boarding school ; her parents’ (especially her mothers’) response to Judy’s divorce “they wanted to see the wreckage for themselves…they left me stranded and penniless in Korea in the hope that it would force me to stay married and not embarrass them”. Once divorced and living in Japan with her son “Eve [her mother] waged a relentless campaign for me to return to Australia so she could ensure I did not take lovers and become like Jean [her mother’s sister]”. Her mother, by then living in New York with her husband who was US ambassador, had a heart attack: “Eve worked up a good set of arterial blockages in preparation for a massive heart attack. She had talent and she used it”. On her mother’s return to Australia, she remained imperious to the last. She had a clear sense of how things should be, rejecting things that were ‘not just exactly right’. She was blunt, with a pertinent charm: ‘Horizontal stripes are unkind to your hips’ ‘Oh dear, not grey again’.
She commented on inappropriate clothing, husbands and haircuts, on roots showing, a vase of flowers or world news not arranged to her liking. She pecked at tiny flaws and big ones, a hen in the yard after grain, a pianist aiming for precisely the right notep.105
In these lists of wrongs, I sense little of the adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities) appraising another adult (with her own secrets, compromises and vulnerabilities), only the resentful, hurt child. And yet, from the outside, Cotton would seem to be very much the dutiful, loving daughter. When her mother is elderly and failing, she flies back and forth over the globe, sitting by her hospital bed, being as supportive as an expatriate child can be. She is both made by her mother’s life, and unmade by her mother’s death.
It is this sense of being drawn away and yet returning that is captured in the title ‘Swimming Home’ and in the frequent descriptions of shores that are repeated throughout the book. It is there right in the opening preface:
Undertow is perilous, the Pacific riptide hauling me hand over hand like a movie on rewind as I watch from the plane. Landing, I struggle to take off instead, but no matter how many times I leave, the land has me by the ankles with a grasp that won’t let goDedication
She returns again and again to the sea, just as she returns again and again to Australia with its light, its smells, its birds, its trees. It is a wide Australia on a huge canvas: it is also a prison, steeped in the blood of dispossession and injustice. The ocean represents openness and distance, and yet also a treacherous pull. Her descriptions of the sea are beautifully created images. I think of George Orwell’s injunction against worn-out metaphors, and certainly she has imbued each of her descriptions of the sea with new, completely original images. The Pacific “hiccuped its briny breath”, it has “goosebumps”, the waves are “an ancient island’s rasping breath” and, most evocatively “the sea shivering in filmy layers as if it were sheer fabric pulled diagonally in ruched pleats one across the other ” (p. 103).
Her final words encapsulate the expatriate’s tug and flow.
Then I will leave again, attempting to evade the land and people that still hold me prisoner, shake off its fierce undertow…I resist the invisible feelers that creep like tiny heat-seeking missiles to cut to my core. I cannot afford to feel. Age has taught me that. I leave again.
No one’s story can explain the past.
No one storyp. 126
I must admit I found myself relieved that this memoir was relatively short (my e-version has 131 pages; the paperback book appears to have 240 pages). The writing is almost too sharp, too crystalline, almost as if you were reading a whole book of poetry in one sitting. I found myself gaining a new appreciation for the book in the second reading I was compelled to undertake, in order to be able to write this blogpost. And this written, now I’ll look at her work.
My rating: 8/10 (hard to say)
Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc. books.