Reviewer Valerie Porter: Valerie is a freelance magazine writer and co-author of 5 books. She has also been a freelance book reviewer for a weekly Los Angeles newspaper and has written her own book blog.
She is an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction.
AUTHOR: Elisa Segrave
PUBLISHER: Union Books
AUTHOR: Elisa Segrave
PUBLISHER: Union Books
The Girl from Station X (subtitled My Mother’s Unknown Life) is part history lesson, part psychotherapy session.
On the one hand, it gives an intriguing first-hand account of living through World War II as told by a woman – Anne Segrave – who worked at famed Bletchley Park (Station X), the deciphering center for breaking codes during the war. Her account comes in the form of diaries her daughter Elisa finds as she packs up the contents of her mother’s home prior to moving her to another home. Anne has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Elisa has been diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s an uneasy time, to be sure.
The woman whose life is revealed in the diaries is in stark contrast to the mother Elisa has come to dislike and resent over the years. The adult Elisa resents her mother’s alcoholism, particularly during the years Elisa and her brothers were children and even now, as an adult, she feels unloved. But could the diaries show her another side of her mother, and perhaps explain, in some small way, the reasons behind the unhappy life she feels she’s lived? In Elisa’s words, after beginning to read the diaries, “What matters is that when I thought it was too late, my mother has unwittingly thrown me a lifeline, linking herself to me.”
Instead of seeing her mother in declining health mentally and physically, or spending self-absorbed time traveling with no real purpose in life, she sees through the diaries a vibrant and successful young woman who held a high position during the war, working at Bletchley Park in the “huts” where code-breakers spent 8-hour shifts. She rose up the ladder to successful positions such as Naval Duty Officer, the best job any woman could have.
Far from the privileged life of Belgrave Square in London, or Palm Beach where she often visited, Anne flourished during wartime and became an independent woman, something her daughter has never seen. Anne was also a conflicted woman, drawn more to females than to males but unwilling to fully recognize her lesbian tendencies and instead deciding that she needed to find a man to marry. It was what was expected during those days. She also describes the smell of bodies buried in ruins, and hearing bombers overhead, so indeed she was deeply affected by the war.
Elisa discovers that her mother, though she may not have always shown it, did indeed love her. “Now, unknowingly, she was giving back to me my very early childhood, the time when she loved me, when she, my father, I and then Raymond were happy,” she says of some of the later diaries after the war. Raymond was her little brother, who drowned.
The book is interesting, and it’s tempting to want to like it wholeheartedly. But there’s something missing somehow. It will be most appreciated by history buffs, because of the details about the war. A secondary market may be those interested in psychology, for two reasons. It’s true that Anne had emotional problems throughout her life, and may not have been the best mother. But one has to admit that Elisa has issues, too, and her venting at times could be interpreted as too harsh and self-pitying. It is intriguing, almost voyeuristic, to read someone’s intimate thoughts about a relationship with a parent. But the danger is that at times it’s hard to know whose side to take in the matter. Was Elisa’s life really any different than that of other people who had a difficult childhood? And she has little grief over her mother’s Alzheimer’s, instead saying that she prefers it over the drunkenness.
One last point – much of the book, and especially the first 50 or so pages, focuses on Elisa’s early family days. This is when readers will have to show a real commitment to staying with the book. After all, it’s not a tell-all by a member of the Royal Family or a member of Parliament or even a major film star we’ve all known and loved. It’s the story of a fairly ordinary family and their struggles. Readers will have to try to care about a family with problems no worse than their own, in order to get to the best part of the book – the war diaries. And hopefully some measure of healing has taken place for Elisa with the setting down on paper the story of her lifetime journey with her mother.