Cover image for Mummy's legs : a novel
Mummy's legs : a novel
Bingham, Kate.
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Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Physical Description:
206 pages ; 23 cm
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Set in an elegant townhouse in London and an old family farmhouse, this luminous, bitter-sweet novel by acclaimed poet Kate Bingham gives us the story of Sarah, who faces adult life in the aftermath of a turbulent, unconventional childhood. When we first meet Sarah she is ten years old, an only child struggling to make sense of an adult world in which nothing can be taken for granted. The pivotal force in Sarah's topsy-turvy household is her vulnerable mother, Catherine, whose mercurial moods command her daughter's full and constant attention. While Catherine lurches from crisis to crisis, Sarah becomes adept at picking up the pieces, learning to care for her mother as if their roles were reversed. As both of her parents seek comfort in extramarital affairs, Sarah treads lightly through a world of solitude and hushed disorder, one punctuated by muffled sobs, closed doors, and secretive departures. In the wake of family trauma, Sarah finds strength and relief in life's visceral diversions and the small distractions of childhood, discovering how to filter her world through the lens of the imagination.

At once devastating and humoro

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In this carefully structured novel, set in contemporary England and moving back and forth in time and memory, Bingham telescopes the whole of a young woman's life through her relationship to her mother. Sarah is ruled by her mother Catherine's weaknesses and demands. Fragile, tempestuous, drunken Catherine is a writer, but we never see her writing. We only see her craven before her thoughtless lover, making her husband crazed, and manipulating her gentle daughter. Sarah manages to remain clear-sighted and levelheaded throughout. Even her relationship with her boyfriend, Ben, shines limpidly. Other family--the cousin Sarah stays with, who longs to acknowledge her own dead child of whom no one will speak; Sarah's clueless father; Catherine's cruel stepfather--serve as fuller counterpoint to the acid outline of Catherine's psyche. Wielding language like a delicate weapon, Bingham manages to find a core of hope in Sarah's unfaltering love. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

The title of British poet Bingham's spare, quietly affecting debut novel quotes the nurse at the London hospital where the 10-year-old protagonist's mother is taken following a suicide attempt. "We need you to be Mummy's legs," the nurse tells young Sarah, who serves throughout the novel as her emotionally unstable mother's gofer, confessor and apologist. While the self-indulgent, manipulative Catherine, a journalist with a circle of literary friends and a poet for a lover, is recovering from her breakdown, Sarah is deposited by her mild-mannered father, Harry--estranged from his wife--at the country home of childless Aunt Marion. The novel alternately cuts from this trying period to a decade in the future, when Sarah, now a young woman in her first love relationship, is helping her embittered, still-single mother celebrate her 50th birthday. By continually switching tenses (from past to present) and voices (from third person to first), Bingham creates a dizzying perspective that mirrors Sarah's enforced selflessness. These same obtrusive narrative techniques, however, deny the novel its driving force, disorienting the reader. Bingham, winner of the 1996 Eric Gregory Poetry Award (for Cohabitation) is at her best in her pared-down descriptions of the country--"The sea was calm and so far away you couldn't even hear what it said."--but the characterizations of all but Sarah's mother seem piecemeal and incomplete. Atmospheric but too loosely pieced together, the novel never quite reaches critical mass; nevertheless, it stylishly sketches a series of emotional states. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

At the center of this poignant story of a mother-daughter relationship is an attempted suicide. When Catherine's no-love-lost marriage dissolves and her longtime lover dumps her, she overdoses and gets hauled to the hospital, from which she leaves and disappears for weeks. This and other family dramas force Catherine's ten-year-old daughter, Sarah, to grow up fast. Luckily, her father and her mother's cousin, Marion, warm her with love, and as an adult Sarah is able to celebrate her mummy's 50th birthday and start a relationship of her own. In short, gem-like chapters, poet Bingham turns chronology on its head, moving back and forth from Sarah's adulthood to her youth, as well as to her mother's childhood. The result is a resonant mosaic and a notable literary debut. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One "Are we nearly there?" Sarah opened her eyes as the car changed down a gear. For a moment the road ahead seemed to vanish into hedgerow. She felt herself thrown hard into the side of the door, then swing back as they straightened out of the turn and once again their headlights beamed up the lane. "I think so." "How nearly?" "Not sure. Did you have a nice sleep?" "Are we lost?" The silhouettes of trees, black against midnight blue, flashed past, and a single electric light glowed faintly far away to their left. "Probably," said Harry, patting her leg cheerfully. "Keep your eyes peeled for a sign to Oswold." A feeble yellowy gray cloud of light fanned out over the road about half a mile ahead of them. Farmhouse gables glimmered, then disappeared like ghosts. The light grew stronger. "She will be all right, won't she?" said Sarah, thinking aloud. "What's that?" They rounded a bend. The road flooded with shining mist. Harry dipped the headlights and the two cars passed in silence. "Are you sure we're not lost?" They had taken the second left after the telephone box in accordance with Marion's instructions. Grasses poked through the tarmac in the middle of the lane and loose stones flicked the underneath of the car. They were driving very slowly now, Sarah on the lookout for hedgehogs and rabbits. Without warning, the tarmac gave way to dry mud, and a gate, decorated with a large white wooden cross, barred the track. "Of course we aren't. Open it then." "But..." Sarah stared into the lit-up tufts of reedy grass. What if there were bulls on the other side? "Go on." "You promise not to trick me?" Harry promised. She got out and walked gingerly toward the gate. The catch lifted easily; it swung downhill away from the car, clanging like a gong as it crashed against a tree stump. A bird clapped free of the branches of an invisible tree close behind her, and Sarah's heart pounded. The Rover slid forward down the track and stopped a few feet clear of the gate, leaving her in eerie, red semidarkness. She ran to the stump and quickly pushed the gate shut. "Only one more," said Harry as she threw herself back into the car. Sheep's eyes glittered in the headlights as they bumped slowly through the field. On the far side of the second gate the track wound down through a field of slender barley. A lit window shone from between the trees below them, then vanished again as the car dipped over a ditch and passed through a copse. Leaves caressed the wing-mirrors like an intake of breath, and they saw the house. Lights were on downstairs, throwing yellow squares onto the lawn, their sharp edges blurred by honeysuckle boughs. Hearing the engine, Marion and Jamie had risen from their seats round the kitchen table and stood frozen, it seemed, wineglasses in their hands. The Rover eased to a stop and Harry and Sarah sat in silence, spellbound and motionless, neither wanting to be first to speak or move. If only they could go on driving forever, she wished. Harry pushed his fingers up behind his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The front door opened and Marion appeared, another block of yellow shining out behind her, stretching past her shadow into the mint and lavender bushes around the drive. "Hello," she said, rubbing her hands and peering into the darkness, "we didn't expect to see you for hours. Has your father been speeding again?" Harry turned off the engine; they opened their doors and climbed out. Tinges of sunset burned a deep, corally red on the horizon, spreading and fading up into the dark blue sky. The scent of freshly cut nettles, of roses, jasmine, even the warm, sticky smell of animals in the next field, hung in the air. Marion gave Harry a hug and then walked round the back of the car to greet Sarah. "How are you, pet? Has it been a very long day?" She kissed her forehead. An earring brushed against Sarah's cheek. It tickled. Marion always wore dangly earrings. Jamie came out of the house and shook hands with Harry. "No trouble finding us, then? I'm afraid Marion is famous for giving hopelessly inaccurate directions." "Oh no, it couldn't have been easier" -- Harry beamed at them -- "though Sarah was sure I'd gone wrong. I usually do." "Well you didn't have to open the gates, did you!" "You could have driven if you'd wanted -- " "Don't tease me," she said, pretending to kick her father. Jamie opened the boot and lifted out their suitcases easily. "What a place!" Harry looked round at the black outlines of outbuildings, then up at the stars. "How long is it now?" "Three months." "I wish I'd come sooner." They walked indoors. Ollie raced out into the hall to meet them, overshooting in a frenzy of enthusiasm. He skittered uncontrollably on the tiles, regained his balance and bounded back, circling Sarah, wagging his tail and jumping up to lick her nose. "Ollie, love, come here!" Marion patted her knees, and after a moment's hesitation, the spaniel abandoned his prey. "Now calm down, or you'll frighten Sarah and she won't want to be your friend." He gazed up at his mistress and licked her hands. Marion had the same soft, almost-not-there smile as her cousin, Sarah's mum. She had the same brown eyes too, but her hair was dark and wavy, and she was taller and not so thin. She looked questioningly at Sarah. "Are you hungry, or do you want to go straight up?" They were in the kitchen. A jug of grass flowers, cow-parsley, and mint and a half-finished bottle of red wine stood at the near end of a vast kitchen table. A sprinkling of tiny, white cow-parsley flowers lay at the base of the jug like a feeble shadow, or a halo, and flies corkscrewed under the light as if in imitation of the dog. The two men hesitated, and for a moment buzzing was all that could be heard. "I think I'll go to bed, if that's all right," said Sarah. "Of course it is, pet! I bet you're exhausted. Come on then." Jamie said good night and Harry promised to be up in a minute. "Which is your case, my love?" Sarah pointed and shyly followed her upstairs. They hadn't seen each other much in the last few years, except at Christmas. The hall ran along almost the whole length of the back of the house, its cobwebby white walls indiscriminately lined with what seemed to Sarah like the contents of an old junk shop: bookcases that sagged with warped and musty out-of-print hardbacks, a coat stand, moth-eaten shooting caps on hat pegs, dark Victorian oils, a row of old framed photographs. Sarah stopped to look at them more closely. "That's Pip, Jamie's grandmother's dog," said Marion, pointing at a picture of a small black-and-white spotted terrier, posed grandly on a croquet lawn in front of a large country house. "And that's where they lived. This way." Wicker baskets, scythes, and ragged bunches of dried flowers hung from the beams on rusting nails. A dimly lit, narrow corridor stretched right and left at the top of the stairs, Marion turned right and pushed open a door with a flourish. "Do you like it?" There were three beds in the room, which smelled of mice and heated-up dust. The thinly carpeted floor sloped crookedly toward a single window. Antique blue wallpaper hung from the ceiling in yellowed curls. Bare electrical wires were all that prevented the light switch from falling out of its crumbling plaster nook in the wall. Marion turned back the cover of the farthest bed and unzipped Sarah's bag, rummaging through for a nightie. "I can do that." She hesitated. "Of course you can, love. I'm sorry. Didn't mean to be nosy." She stepped back and waited as Sarah tipped the contents of her case onto one of the spare beds and quickly picked out her pajamas. "Where's the bathroom?" "At the end on the left -- " "Thanks." Sarah disappeared. "The light switch is outside..." Her father came in to tuck her up. "Is this okay, cherub?" he asked, bending over to stroke her hair. Sarah nodded. "How long are you staying?" "I ought to get back tomorrow, but I'll try and come for a weekend soon. Marion will look after you." "It's not the same." "I know." He kissed her eyelids, then straightened up. "It's the best we can do." He pulled the door to and went downstairs, the corridor creaking with every step. His leather shoes slapped on the tiles in the hall. The latch clicked and the kitchen door banged shut. Adult voices drifted up through the floorboards, hard to make out at first. Sarah lay quietly and listened. "So how is she?" "Okay. They're keeping her in for surveillance. She'll be released in a day or two, stupid girl." It was her father; he sounded very tired. "Have a drink," said Jamie. "Thanks. I need one." "How was the drive?" "Oh, fine. Unreal. Sarah was quiet -- as you'd expect, I suppose. She's been terribly brave, almost matter-of-fact about it." "Poor thing." "Does she understand?" "Oh, perfectly. If anyone's in the dark it's me. I should never have moved out." "No one's blaming you," said Jamie. "I am. I was there, she actually called me round. I should have known. I should have stayed -- kept an eye on her." "She's not a child -- " "She just behaves like one," Marion muttered bitterly, interrupting. "This is classic emotional blackmail. Foot stamping! I grew up with her, remember. I've seen it before. I know you feel responsible, Harry -- of course you do, it's only natural -- but let it go! Just let it go. It's Catherine's fault, not yours." There was a heavy pause, broken by the sound of Ollie, skidding and scampering across the floor. He must have frightened himself: he barked once, curtly. "Ollie, shut up," Jamie growled back. "What exactly did the doctors say?" "Nothing much. She'll make a full recovery but, well, she took all sorts of stuff -- quite a cocktail -- so they need to keep her in to make sure there aren't going to be any unexpected side effects. I'm supposed to have a word with our GP, put him on the alert. The other question is," he groaned, "whether I should move back in -- for a month or so." "Has she been working?" "God knows. She stays in bed a lot, reads all the papers from cover to cover, writes the odd review. Apart from that she does what she wants." "As usual," said Marion. Jamie cleared his throat. "Moving in might make matters worse -- " "But at least I'd be there to stop her trying again." "Ollie...! How have you two been getting on?" "Hard to say. She's been so worried about David -- ever since Christmas, she seems to have forgotten me. For a while I was actually relieved. Which makes me feel worse now, of course." "Do you want to move in again?" Harry shrugged. "If you go back," said Marion, "she'll only think her melodramatics have succeeded." "Come on now, love. That's a bit harsh, isn't it?" said Jamie. "We all have to learn how to cope with losing the things we love," Marion insisted. "Even Catherine." They paused. "But what if she does it again? What if next time she wakes up and doesn't bother calling the Samaritans?" "Then she's more of a bloody fool than I thought." Marion hesitated, then said more softly, "I don't know. Was it a serious attempt?" "What does the doctor think?" asked Jamie. "I haven't asked. I'll talk to him when they let her out." There was a long silence. "Anyway, thank you both for being here." "Come on, Harry. That's what families are for." Another pause. "Hey, it's a stunning place you've got yourselves here." "Wait until you see it in daylight." "Mmm. Actually, I'm pretty exhausted. Mind if I go to bed?" Chairs scraped back from the table as they stood up and cleared away their glasses. Copyright © 1998 Kate Bingham. All rights reserved.