Claudia Hampton lies dying in somewhere in the U.K. The once independent, intelligent, beautiful journalist and historian recalls her life the way we on hold on to our past, through the disjointed flow of consciousness which allows the mind to access memories. As she receives visitors and gifts, Claudia connects symbols and images from long ago with people from her current life. Circumstances and behaviors one may only reflect upon after the fact are revealed to her as an elderly woman as waking and dreaming states become entwined in her brain.
As Claudia, the once famed historian tells her own story, she makes a point to note several times throughout that she will write a history of the world. Claudia’s life, like all people’s is woven as part of a larger narrative-her memories, events, books she wrote, significant people have all become part of a greater history. ‘A history of the world, yes. And in the process, my own.’ Those she loves most are also very much a significant part of history.
The reflections of Claudia Hampton, despite her scholarly background, contain observations one might not expect from a historian. She mentions that history isn’t linear in the memory, rather it is recalled to the mind in streams of consciousness. ‘I’ve always thought a kaleidoscope view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out.’ It is very true that no person thinks directly about things, but one notion leads to another. They do not need to be connected or related in time or substance. Since the key to understanding one’s own past and the whole history of man, which are inextricably tied together really exists only in the mind-past, present, future must be only what we make them. Through Claudia, the author questions the objectivity of the historian and human race by asking existential questions. What is history, after all, if each person views things from a different perspective? Even a shared memory may be considered a completely alternate reality. What really happened? As Claudia ruminates, she realizes all that will be left of her after she dies is not the way she sees herself, but the way others perceive her.
There is a startling lack of affection given to some vital figures in Claudia’s life. She has an on-again-off-again romantic relationship with Jasper for about a decade. Her descriptions of Jasper involve his ancestry, success as a businessman, affairs with other women, and ability to annoy her. Claudia explains situations which occur between them such as the day she told Jasper she was pregnant and would keep the baby. He agrees that he will help her raise the child. Their daughter, Lisa, becomes part of the narrative. Yet in all of their encounters there never seems to be any emotion present. Jasper is a way to pass time-that is all.
When Lisa comes into the picture, it is difficult for the reader to comprehend why Claudia, abandons her in many ways. Lisa is left with her grandmothers most of the time. When she is with her mother, Claudia is distanced by the fact that the child is nothing like her. There is a sense that Claudia, like most parents wishes to start fresh with her little girl and undo the damage that has been done to her in her own life. ‘We do not remember childhood-we imagine it. We search for it in vain, through layers of obscuring dust, and recover some bedraggled threads of what we think it was.’ Our own children become a way for us to take back pieces of our missing childhood through them and with them. But, neither Claudia nor Jasper can see any part of themselves in their daughter. Since Claudia needs to feel something that is missing from her own world, Lisa never even knows her mother loves her.
Similar to most all who know her, the reader often misunderstands Claudia as a person. But as the layers of her intellect unfold the secrets she keeps hidden are exposed. Always competitive and independently spirited, Claudia travels to Cairo during World War II in order to prove to her ‘alter ego’ brother Gordon that she can be a journalist. This is where she meets the only man to ever compare with Gordon intellectually or physically, her soul mate, Tom Southern. They climb the Great Pyramid, eat dinner on a restaurant boat, and walk around the city’s crowded marketplaces together. With Tom she never feels so sure of herself-they plan to marry and have children. Even as an old woman in her bed, Claudia can picture clear as day the ring Tom buys her and filled with desert sand, the poinsettia growing beside his army boot out of nothingness , and the moon tiger burning smoke into the night sky.
Every moment of Claudia’s life after Tom is killed is filled with sadness and disappointment because it doesn’t compare to the life she thought she would have with him. Every other person in her life suffers because of the emptiness of the void she cannot fill. Of course there is the chance things may not have worked out well with the young Tom. But seeing only the beginning of their relationship misleads her perception- something she claims to understand but is biased about in regards to herself- for the rest of her life. What might have been is always more alluring to consider that accepting reality. It is human nature to know you should not question these things and do it anyway.
There is one person always by Claudia’s side in what some might label an unorthodox manner, her brother Gordon. What starts out as a competitive relationship in youth, develops into something more physical in their teenage years. When the two go to a dance and spend the night rubbing on each other, which culminates in a kiss, the reader isn’t certain what to make of the situation. Claudia never notes any uncomfortable feelings regarding their incestual relationship, which she likens to narcissism. Rather she alludes to the fact that siblings are mirror reflection of each other. I once read that siblings reared in the same environment should not be physically attracted to each other. There must be certain psychological or physical circumstances which could alter this. In the case of Gordon and Claudia, she mentions that they are both exceedingly attractive and intelligent (She considers this the reason she cannot find a man to live up to Gordon). They received no love from their mother and their father was killed in the Battle of the Sommes. Are the siblings psychologically disturbed and morally corrupt, or is Claudia justified in her explanation of the two egomaniacs loving themselves in each other?
In attempting to move on with her life years after Tom has passed on, Claudia is involved in a car accident. She sits in a Madrid hospital and breaks into tears when Gordon arrives days later. He asks what could be wrong because he hasn’t seen her cry since she was six years old. She says she is sad to realize she’s still alive. Claudia looks deeply into Gordon’s eyes and the reader, again, is confronted with an eerie feeling. It’s uncomfortable because in our society incest is taboo. Then I wondered: is it wrong for this woman to love her brother more than anyone else because society says so? Where is the harm in it? She found another man and he was taken away. If Tom had lived, Claudia would not have needed to continue her fascination with Gordon. As with most things of this nature, no one, aside from Gordon and possibly his wife Sylvia even sensed that their emotions ran so deep.
The final message of Claudia’s history becomes her communication with the deceased Tom Southern. Long ago she was sent his diary from the desert which records, among visions of violence and death, dreams and gazelles. The last act of her life is preserving his memory in her mind, they will remain here forever. She combines his history with hers. This must be enough.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
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Read novel with themes of memories, love, loss, romance by Lively: The Phototgraph