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Posted on 9 Nov 2021 in Non-Fiction |

CAROL MAJOR The Asparagus Wars. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey

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Stretching from France to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Carol Major’s memoir is a meditation on family, grief and love.

This memoir by Carol Major comprises three strands woven into one heartbreaking narrative of a woman and her daughter. Written as a series of letters from the mother in the Marne region of north-eastern France to her dead daughter, as if in conversation with her, over a period of 13 days it traces the progression of her daughter’s illness from its detection to her death.

The Marne region was a significant site of World War I, and in this book wars take place on many sites, and in different eras. There is the daughter’s battle against a chronic illness, a new challenge with a diagnosis of bowel cancer, tussles between families, and the futile battle they all faced against her death.

The title The Asparagus Wars comes from stepmother Lillian’s alternative regime for the daughter of acupuncture, Chinese herbs and a diet of pureed asparagus. Both Carol and her daughter realise the stepmother is doing her best to keep the young woman alive.

I wanted to tell her [Lillian] that she didn’t get everything right, but I kept my mouth shut, because I didn’t know everything either, and at least her conviction was a solid path – and because you [the daughter] wanted to believe in it so much, but would waver.

With excoriating honesty the book lays out Carol’s experience of mothering. Like her daughter’s disease, her experience of motherhood is a series of searing losses and small wins. Along the way, she gives up a child, loses custody of two of her children, has another child with another partner, contends with a hostile ex-husband, his new wife and their new family.

There are territorial wars over who will care for her daughter, and who has the decision-making power over which treatments to try. Fortunately, the daughter is very strong, and she is able to assert herself in most situations. She is sensitive enough to tolerate various interventions, like Lillian’s alternative therapies and Carol’s insistence that they could fulfil a wish to travel to Paris. When the daughter finally vetoes the holiday plan, Carol decks out her daughter’s flat in a Parisian style. There is a lot of movement and activity, more it seems to be active and ‘keep busy’, often the resort of the grieving and the desperate. Though just reading about the caring schedule, even with the assistance of paid carers, is exhausting. It shows the levels of love and devotion from all sides of the family.

Carol’s relationships aren’t successful. Jeff, who had followed her to Australia and married her, told her as he was leaving that he had never loved her. Her storytelling powers are at their height in these last scenes as her daughter lies dying and Carol’s house in the Blue Mountains is falling down around her ears.

Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy is linked with osteoporosis. There are hairline fractures in your ankles and feet …

The jackhammering [at the house] continues. Rat-ta-ta-tat-tat. Then stops. The builder reappears on my side of the plastic with his labourer … ‘White ants. We have to stop.’ He is holding grubs in a jar; says he needs to call the council inspector, says the whole back of the house has to come down.

This scene is as much about the house as it is about Carol’s marriage and the fact that everyone’s relationship has taken second place to the care of her daughter. It also emphasises the enormous amount of work and paperwork it takes to keep a disabled and chronically ill person living in the community with a touch of autonomy.

The narrative that overlays these strands is Carol’s time on the battlefields of the Great War. It is no accident that Carol sets the scene here. The ‘war to end all wars’ went on too long, took too many lives and casualties and changed the world forever. Like World War I, her daughter’s battle with her diseases has been lost by the time these letters are written, and Carol is left to scramble down bomb craters and through patches of nettles, which she grasps despite being told what they are.

Nettles, they weren’t nettles. The leaves looked so richly green and soft. I crouched to grab a handful, felt nothing at first and then an explosion of burning pain …

My hand was burning. I wanted it to burn. I wanted to feel this pain, my burning hand while I stood watching the Vesle River shimmering silver ribbons.

Again, her superb storytelling weaves her pain with the slow, peaceful life in a French village a long way from World War I or her daughter’s death.

But she does find some of what she has been searching for in north-eastern France: two special but obscure pieces of history. One is the Writers Walk, which follows the paths of poets who participated in World War I. The other is the graves and memorial sites of soldiers shot for desertion – Section E of the war graves site in Fismes. Major had researched a memorial to disgraced servicemen in Staffordshire, England, which had been approved in 2006. The UK Defence Secretary said, ‘… it was clear that all of these men had been victims of war’.

The symbolism of Section E is especially important. Carol feels she deserted her children – the boy she gave up for adoption after a teenage pregnancy; the two children she left behind in Australia after some bad advice from her own mother about the best way to wrest back custody of them from her husband and his parents. There is guilt, too, that it is the genetic inheritance from her side of the family that has caused her daughter to develop this devastating condition, and, no doubt, a mother’s guilt that she could not save her daughter and make her well again.

This book is a tender, sympathetic and forgiving story of grief, struggle and love, best encapsulated in Major’s own words:

Through Sylvie’s window I see the garden shrouded in fog, but every so often light breaks through the mist. Patches in the distant fields glimmer, suggesting there is something further away for me to see. I think it is the most that can be said of this journey: complexity shot through with fleeting light and love.

If you are a writer, one fascinating thing about this memoir is the way Major has used symbols to tell her story – old battlefields, crumbling houses, problems with personal relationships – and woven them together to provide background and substance to the narrative. The book is a superb example of how to use the devices of fiction to tell a non-fiction story.

Read it and weep, both for the story and the beautiful storytelling.

Carol Major The Asparagus Wars Spineless Wonders 2021 PB 228pp $27.99

Linda Godfrey is a poet, editor and teacher. She has recently released a chapbook of poetry, Count the Ways, published by Verity La. Linda won the 2021 AAWP First Chapter: a pathway to publication prize. She lives on the Dharawal land of the Wodi Wodi people, on the south coast of New South Wales.

You can buy The Asparagus Wars from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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