Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughter tells the history of Brazil through the eyes of a single bloodline of women, from 1500 to 2000. Each chapter focusses on one of these women (or, in a few cases, a mother-daughter pair), who run the gamut from slaves to slave-owners, revolutionaries to idle society ladies, muses to artists, powerful matriarchs to powerless victims, Indians to respectable “white” women whose eyes would “light up in shock” if they found out about their indigenous (and African, and working class) ancestry. Only a few traits recur—for example, a triangular birthmark, a love of music, and depressive tendencies—but they usually skip several generations, and mothers and daughters, in particular, tend to have completely different personalities. Our heroines marry good men, they marry bad men, they have children with lovers who die under tragic circumstances; they themselves eventually die, their cause of death ranging from jaguar attack to yellow fever, pneumonia to speeding race-car, police brutality to poison dart to peaceful old age.
There are a number of challenges that come with writing this kind of novel. For example:
- It can be hard for an author to make readers care for characters who we know will be dead by the end of the chapter, and who might even be forgotten by the other characters after two or three more chapters have passed.
- It can be repetitive, as authors may feel like they’re expected to produce a mini-biography each time, from birth to death, with a few pages for each phase of their characters’ lives, from childhood to dotage.
- Because the characters need to keep reproducing in order to support the novel’s central premise, authors may end up focussing too much on love and baby-making, to the detriment of everything else a person may get up to in their life.
- The author may be clumsy in their attempt to weave their characters’ stories with wider history: for example by engineering improbable encounters with famous historical figures (à la Forrest Gump); or by writing pages and pages of historical exposition, with names of battles and factions and politicians, which, again, will cease to be relevant once two or three more chapters have passed; or by writing chapters more out of a sense that they have to cover a specific event or phenomenon than because it makes organic sense for that event or phenomenon to touch the lives of their characters; or by making their characters’ stories into painfully obvious allegories for their country’s history.
Now, I would be lying if I said that Silveira was never guilty of any of the above, but there’s usually a “but.” Specifically:
- It’s true that it’s a little hard to fully care about each and every one of the characters. Silveira’s choice to narrate from the perspective of a (mostly) omniscient narrator who favours “telling” over “showing” does not help, as it fosters further detachment. However, I enjoyed the narrator’s subtle charm and humour, and it did genuinely feel like someone was telling me a story, so I would not necessarily have preferred a book told from the individual perspective of twenty-one different characters.
- Each chapter follows its own distinctive pattern, its own twists and turns, many of which are genuinely unpredictable—especially when it comes to a character’s death (the jaguar attack is particularly memorable). As the novel progresses, Silveira also takes a looser and looser approach to the chronological order of events.
- I don’t think Silveira dwells too long on love and baby-making. Sometimes a character’s relationship to the father of her children is important, sometimes it isn’t; sometimes her relationship to her children is important, sometimes it isn’t. In all cases, the woman at the centre of each chapter is a fleshed-out, psychologically believable character, with ambitions and interests and fears that have little to do with her sex life. However, I will say this: it’s a little odd that, out of twenty-one different women, each so distinct from the others, every single one of them is unquestioningly heterosexual. It’s possible that this is a side effect of the novel’s need for them to reproduce, though of course “queer” people have had children since the dawn of time, so that doesn’t really stand up as an excuse. I’m not saying all novels have to have queer characters, but, as I said, statistically, you’d expect at least a few of these women to not be attracted by men, or not to be attracted solely by men.
- There are only very few irritating, Forrest Gump-esque encounters with famous historical figures, only a couple of chapters where I could have done with fewer paragraphs on this or that war or this or that political debate, and, thankfully, no awkward metaphors for Brazilian history (or, at least, none that I detected). When history changes or disrupts the characters’ lives, it usually does so in a way that makes sense; in many cases, characters remain oblivious to massive events, either because they lead a life of (forced or chosen) isolation, or simply because these events, however massive, happen not to touch their private affairs.
Overall, then, Silveira largely succeeds in crafting a compelling novel, and avoiding the pitfalls that come with her chosen format. In fact, I think it’s one of the novel’s greatest strengths that it’s fragmented into twenty or so mini-novels: it’s hard not to marvel at the skill with which Silveira compresses enough material for something as complex as a historical novel (or, indeed, something as complex as a person’s life) into a mere twenty pages. However, a word of warning: barring perhaps the first few, it can be exhausting, even dizzying, to read the chapters too quickly one after the next, as I made the mistake of doing a couple of times. Almost every chapter should be treated like the mini-novel that it is, and read slowly and with care.
Eric M.B. Becker’s English (which I can only assume reflects something of Silveira’s original Portuguese) is relatively plain but, for the most part, clear and functional, allowing the plot to do its own thing without tripping it up with aesthetic flourishes or vivid imagery. It reminded me, a little, of Octavia Butler‘s style, though less muscular, and more prone to somewhat clichéd similes. There are a few clumsy passages here and there (and one long line that’s meant to be in Italian but doesn’t make any sense) but I think these should have been ironed out by an editor or proofreader, and I think I was particularly sensitive to them because proofreading is one of my jobs, and I have also just spent a week workshopping other translators’ work.
Because I don’t want to end on a (slight) negative, allow me to reiterate that this is is a very good book, and you should read it.