Book review: Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Mother and daughter relationships… it’s a theme close to the heart of Meike Ziervogel, author and founder of Peirene Press, an award-winning UK publishing house.

Claras Daughter by Meike Ziervogel
Claras Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Her debut novel, Magda, a spellbinding analysis of the wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was highly acclaimed by critics and shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize.

Ziervogel’s harrowing account of the fatal fall-out from abusive mother and daughter relationships was a terrifying example of unloved daughters destroying the people they love, and then themselves.

Here she moves to the leafy suburbs of London to explore the power play between a controlling but ageing mother and her successful businesswoman daughter whose troubled relationship threatens to destroy them both.

Beautifully observed, intensely human and simmering with tension, this is a haunting novel about familiar family fault lines, but told with uncompromising honesty and extraordinary insight.

Ziervogel carefully pieces together the uneasy lives of a mother and her daughter whilst events from the past, long-held resentments and the poisonous effects of loneliness slowly but surely expose the chasm between them and the repressed anxieties that are tearing them apart.

All her life, Michele has been good at controlling her anger. That’s why she is the successful CEO of an oil company. She doesn’t lose her temper with anyone, not even the most ‘useless’ people she meets along the way.

For Michele, work is a game, ‘a mind game, a chess game, a game of endurance, an exhilarating game. Most difficulties you face aren’t personal.’

Away from work, the game of life is very different. Any problems she encounters there are usually personal. Michele is Jim’s wife, Hilary’s sister, Felix and Thea’s mother and Clara’s daughter, roles determined by possession.

Her marriage to Jim, an attractive man whose career has stagnated and who has learned ‘there are more important things in life,’ is not what it once was and particularly not since her widowed mother became ‘a worry.’

Clara is old, accident-prone and increasingly paranoid, her home is full of the remnants of her past – not least the wardrobe full of her dead husband Edward’s clothes – and the bitterness that she has always harboured for Michele, the ‘cold fish’ daughter ‘she can’t get through to.’

When Michele moves her mother into the basement of her home, Jim finally slams the door on their 25-year marriage. And still Clara is not happy. This is Michele’s house, the walls are too white ‘like in a madhouse’ and even though Edward’s clothes are installed in a new wardrobe, she feels lonely. The cocoon she span to keep herself safe has proved to be porous.

While Michele increasingly hides away upstairs, Clara weaves her conspiracies beneath… until Clara makes a decision that could release them both from their stand-off. But can Michele ever truly be free?

Quietly dramatic, emotionally powerful and pervasively oppressive, Clara’s Daughter exposes the meltdown of a marriage under pressure and the destructive effects of isolation.

Ziervogel cleverly succeeds in taking no sides in the mother-daughter battle; instead, she asks searching questions about gender roles, personal identity, the cruelties of old age, family duty and the fragile bonds of sexual love.

Are women destined to become their mothers, can a marriage only be measured by the good times and can we really prevent history repeating itself?

Clara’s Daughter is a devastating tale of our times… beautifully written, compelling and emotionally intelligent, it is a masterful achievement and represents the work of an author with a deep understanding of the frailty of human nature.

(Salt, paperback, £9.99)