Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.
These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. Our narrator’s big family comprises her parents, elder sisters (Irene, Marta, Georgina), and younger siblings (Susana and Eduardo).
Flickering and joyous, broken by only a single night, the first journey we made from Buenos Aires to Mendoza emerges from my memory like a landscape recovered through a misted pane of glass.
As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.
She begins by describing the “three windows that looked into her childhood” – her father’s study with its imposing furniture upholstered in leather, a very formal place Norah could visit only occasionally; her mother’s sewing room, which was inviting and emanated warmth as the sewing baskets overflowed with ribbons and lace, a place where her children could unburden themselves; her eldest sister Irene’s room as she regaled them with tales of kidnappings, of elopements, and how she would one day run away from home.
Our narrator then dwells on her sisters and their personalities – the brooding and intense Marta, whose peeled hands “looked like the pages of a well-loved book whose edges curl backward.” There’s Georgina with her immaculate, poised figure, always ready to help with anything and the apple of their mother’s eye. Then there’s Susana, younger but closer to Norah in age, so that they bond better coupled with the fact that both have flaming red hair.
Shards of surrealism, seen through the prism of a child’s vivid imagination, pierce these scenes. For instance, one such piece conveys how Norah always tried to slip into the faces of people she observed.
At the age of six, whenever I noticed a pronounced curve in the nose of any of the important men who filed through my house, I would laugh. Then I would slide into their faces, positioning my body inside to adjust to their silhouette.
Another touching snippet showcases the tragic death of her father’s horse and the deep impression it leaves on young Norah’s mind. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the horse could not adapt to its old age and was sidelined for a younger one.
He died of jealousy. That’s how I understood it, and that’s what I wish to keep on believing forever.
Of course, any family life is punctuated by its fair share of highs and lows, so while the birth of their youngest sister Esthercita brings immense joy to the family, the father’s death leaves them feeling adrift as they venture into an uncertain, unknowable future.
Occasionally news from the outside world penetrates the fabric of their domestic life. Even though Buenos Aires is physically and figuratively far away from Europe, the hotbed of strife during the First World War, snatches of it reaches the ears of the sisters inducing feelings of dread.
…the events of the First World War were for us a hazy, distant reality, and once settled in Buenos Aires we were so cut off from all that went on in the world that we ended up forgetting it entirely.
One afternoon, rumors flew through the neighborhood that the Germans were winning. Terrified, and convinced that their victory would mean any number of humiliations, that we would be forced to marry them and to speak their language, we decided to barricade ourselves in the house.
Our narrator, meanwhile, as a child is beset with fears and obsessions (“At one time, it occurred to me to make a list of my obsessions, to contemplate them coldly and perhaps try to free myself of one”). Her role is akin to that of a voyeur, as she observes her sisters and acquaintances surreptitiously, often hidden from full view – she snoops on Marta bathing naked in the moonlight, she peeks into a room where Irene is breastfeeding their younger brother, she yearns to spy on her French teacher’s daughter through a crack in the door so that she can see the latter faint during a dress fitting.
There is joy to be found in simple pleasures – an outing to the cinema (“a room filled with a thick and mysterious darkness we sensed would be unlike any other we’d known”) stimulates feelings of intense excitement and wonder; the crowning glory of those perfect Saturday nights is exemplified by hot baths at dusk complete with lit stoves in the bedrooms, warm towels and nightgowns; while Christmas conjures up glowing images of “huge parcels, that late, keen ritual, that poignant and slightly dreamy midnight…”
I loved to contemplate even more from the next day, in the tangible truth of the gifts that were proofs of its fleeting, mysterious, tender reality.
But this microcosm of a happy family is shattered when the father dies, plunging his wife and children into hardships and poverty, their misery amplified when they are compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – sell their piano.
Together, we all had sensed that the worse was to come, since though we’d suspected it many times, the sale of the piano was something we didn’t dare countenance for even an instant. The side table, the enormous mirror in the drawing room, and nearly all the furniture we brought from Mendoza had already gone, but giving up the piano represented a decisive, unmistakable poverty.
Our narrator is no stranger to poverty having glimpsed this condition early on in the book when a man approaches her father for a safety pin to fasten his shirt so that he can properly mourn the death of his wife – “I believe no case of poverty has touched me so much since then.”
Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.
In her afterward, translator Charlotte Whittle talks about how Lange was inspired by collage artwork – characterized by varied images stuck together to produce one vibrant piece of art – while composing this memoir. An indication of this is given earlier on in the novel where our narrator entertained herself with her favourite pastime that involved “clipping words from local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles.”
Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.