Rosie book review: Rose Tremain’s memoir has a dream-like distance

“I can sometimes conceive of my childhood as a long journey towards the one-syllable noun I could properly own: Rose,” writes Rose Tremain, explaining that she answered to ‘Rosie’ until she was twenty. This confession is an early indication of just how significant distance is in Tremain’s first work of non-fiction.

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life is exactly what the title suggests: no comprehensive autobiography of the celebrated novelist’s life, nor the story of her formation of a young writer (though footnotes do explain the real-life origins of some of her fictional characters, episodes and settings), but rather often dream-like vignettes of a girl – and a world – that no longer exists.

Born in 1943, Tremain grew up in Chelsea – “a pleasant but ordinary little London borough then,” she points out – amongst the bombsites and the barrowboys. Holidays, however, were spent at Linkenholt, her grandparents’ large, gabled manor house in Hampshire, a rural “paradise” for young Rosie and her sister Jo.

Love, unfortunately, is largely absent in both homes. Rosie’s mother’s parents have never recovered from the loss of their two young sons – one from a burst appendix, the other in the First World War – bereavement rendering them unable to love their daughter Jane. She, in turn, struggles to show affection to her daughters, “perched,” as she so often was instead, “on an abyss of anger” with them.

Rosie’s father, a not very successful playwright, was barely present – his daughters seeing him so rarely, “we had no real idea who he was” – even before he and Jane get divorced and he disappears from their lives permanently. Jane reacts to this abandonment by embarking on an affair with her ex-husband’s cousin, whose wife, in turn, begins sleeping with another (married) family friend.

“The grown-ups had entered a period of sexual madness, quite beyond us to comprehend,” Tremain observes, “making up for lost time,” she concludes, the war having stolen their youth. What saves Rosie during these years of emotional neglect is the kindness and love of her nanny ‘Nan’.

I was struck by the similarities between Tremain’s childhood and that of the novelist Penelope Lively – the divorced, ineffectual parents; a beloved nanny who becomes the mother figure; a grandparent’s country house that looms large, and an episodic approach to conveying these experiences on the page. Both Lively’s memoirs Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived and A House Unlocked piece together a whole out of fragments, but Tremain takes this tactic one step further, setting up a distance between herself and her material that makes for sometimes exasperating reading.

That her inattentive mother remains ‘Jane’ throughout, for example, is understandable, but what little insight Tremain affords us of her own thoughts and feelings often have a sense of sterility. Unlike Lively, who went on to Oxford, Jane decides she doesn’t want a bluestocking for a daughter so Rosie has to abandon her academic ambitions and is sent to finishing school in Switzerland instead: another long since extinct world.

Although more decorative than elucidating, Rosie is endlessly intriguing.

‘Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life’ is published by Chatto & Windus, £14.99

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