I have to admit to being totally rubbish about blog stuff ever since I got back from honeymoon. I have no excuses, but the putting away of wedding presents in amalgamation with the working full time has taken up lots of my energy. Also, since getting married (and I know this is really cliché and probably very anti-feminist of me), I’ve felt more like I need to work on our house, and make it more a home and less a place that’s full of stuff. To be honest I think that’s a feeling also shared by my husband, but anyway! Here I am, and I’m going to attempt a long overdue review of Olga: A Daughter’s Tale by Marie- Therese Browne. This book was sent to me many months ago by the author, and I’ve been terrible at getting my act together to first read, and now review it. However, here I finally am, and despite the madness of life at the moment, I read and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I come from a really big, crazy family, and the fundamental sense of knowing who I am and where I belong has always been hugely important to me. On top of that, I am also very interested in genealogy, and have been compiling my family tree from a really young age – thanks to research done by my grandfather, I’ve traced on branch of it all the way back to the 1700s. The premise of this novel greatly interested me, as it is all about a woman discovering her mother’s past and family for the first time, and about the things which can happen to split even the closest of families up.
Based on a true story, Olga Browney born in Jamaica into a large close-knit, coloured Catholic family was a kind naive, gentle girl who came to London in 1939 intending to stay only six months with her malevolent, alcoholic aunt. But world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent prevented her from returning home to Jamaica until over half a century later when her past caught up with her.
The story starts off with Lucy, Olga’s aunt, and her arrival in Jamaica. It tells of how Lucy’s sisters, Martha and Becky, come to visit her, and of Becky’s love affair and eventual marriage to Henry, a black man. In 1900 this was totally scandalous, and Becky is completely cut off by her entire family except Lucy, however, she stays in Jamaica with her eleven children, despite eventually splitting up with Henry. The majority of the novel focuses on Olga, Becky’s ninth child and mother of the author, and her story. Told through diary entries and starting with her life in Jamaica, the story recounts her journey to England, to stay with drunken, cruel Aunt Martha, her decision to train as a nurse, and her prevention from returning to Jamaica due to World War 2. It follows Olga through brutal events, the birth of her daughter, and her eventual reunion with her family, fifty years after her last contact with them.
The novel reads like a story that has been told countless times before. It is a family saga in the proper sense of the word . When I was a child, there was a certain story my dad used to tell, about ‘the time Uncle John took him fishing’, which he had told to us so often we could basically narrate along with him, and this novel brought that to mind. Knowing that it was a story which the author was hearing pretty much for the first time as she was writing it, I was very impressed with the sense of nostalgia and historical immersion that she portrays. For me, the book was very well written, and I did feel transported at times while reading it, to Jamaica, a place that I’ve never been, but also to 1940s London.
Everything within the novel is told from the point of view of the women; Lucy, Becky, and Olga herself primarily, but with an introduction and epilogue by Marie- Therese Browne. In fact, the only men to feature in the novel at all are presented in an almost totally negative light. However, it does give the feeling of being an honest telling of a story, and it doesn’t dwell on the meanness of men. The men who feature – Olga’s father, Henry, her brother, Sydney, and the father of her child, John Edward, are talked about only when they are present within the story. There is not much thought about them when they are not there, nor really much dwelling on things which have happened, and I liked that. Despite the extreme difficulty of her circumstances at times, Olga’s story always moves forwards, and by the end of the book I had developed a tremendous amount of respect for a woman raising a child in such difficult circumstances.
It is a very eventful novel, which was one of the things I found engaging about it. It was very easy to read because to a certain extent, it picked you up and carried you away with it. It was also a really interesting look at the way in which non-British people were treated during and immediately after the war, and throughout the often terrible situations and events, Olga retains a certain naive innocence which I loved.
It’s a fairly short book, and a very quick read, and if you are interested in the 1940s, or in family sagas, then I would fully recommend reading it. You can find out more about the author and her novel over at her blog www.olgasdaughersblog.wordpress.com.