REVIEW FOR THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY: 26.6.05

By Peter Stanford

The death of one’s parents is one of the great landmarks in life. Most of us are fortunate in that it only comes once we have reached adulthood and so, in theory, have some of the emotional tools necessary to cope. They allow for a sense of the natural order of things, of one generation giving way to another, and so mitigate the more primitive feelings of being orphaned.

But underneath it is rarely so straightforward. I recall that, in my grief, well-meaning folk would talk first of my mother, then of my father, having had a good innings, a good death, a life well-lived and of them reaching a good age. The positive emphasis in their choice of adjectives jarred but somehow also made it feel self-indulgent to give voice to any enduring pain. You cry alone because the last staging point between childhood and adulthood has become something of a taboo in an age where we prefer not to talk about death in any of its forms.

The great virtue of Catherine Lucas’s book is that it tackles this taboo head on, in language that is both accessible and intuitive. And there is not a hint of self-help guide to Carry Me Home, though that may ultimately be its effect.

Lucas was only just an adult when her mother died. The circumstances were particularly traumatic. She was learning to drive, near the family home on the Isle of Wight. Her mother, Tate, was sitting next to her. Catherine’s attention was distracted. In her inexperience, she lost control of the car. Her mother died in the resulting accident.
In her own mind, Catherine had killed her. Her pain was shut inside and over the years she buried it deep. Carry Me Home shows, however, that ignoring something is never the answer. Over several decades, Lucas has battled to come to terms with her own guilt and grief.

It is the longer story that she tells. So instead of this being one woman’s tale of picking over a particularly appalling tragedy, she uses the intensely personal to chime with the experiences of anyone else who has struggled with the loss of parents.

This universal quality is what keeps you turning the pages and seeing yourself. Unable to talk about Tate to those around her for fear of appearing maudlin, for instance, Catherine spills it all out into an essay supposedly about a dead war poet on her English A-level paper. As I discovered, when launched into an impromptu account of my own mother’s death to an audience at a literary festival, it’s easier with strangers: best of all if they can’t answer back and you won’t ever see them again.

In her attempts to heal herself, there is scarcely an option Lucas hasn’t tried from therapy to yoga, living overseas, relationships, Hinduism and New Age workshops. In one she undergoes “guided meditation” where she slips down into a river and sees on its bank the world’s great religious teachers.

It should sound corny and a cliché but it somehow doesn’t the way Lucas tells it. She shares your reservations but carries you beyond them. It is as if she can stand outside herself and watch you watch, but also point you to something more enduring.

Ultimately what works for her is religion, not in the organized, denominational rule-and-regulations model, but rather the bespoke, broadly spiritual variety that touches on the transcendent and gives her a sense that there is something more to this world than meets the eye.

Carry Me Home does not set out to convert anyone. Instead this memoir skillfully demonstrates that, while the death of a parent does leave scars, the wounds themselves, however unacknowledged by society, can and do heal. It is an important message, too seldom heard.