Eva’s life story and Susan’s attempt to make sense of it are insightfully pieced together to create a unique tale of the mother-daughter relationship.
The Album is an intriguing account of how Susan Knapp discovered the complex and disturbing sexual relationship her mother had in childhood with a middle-aged family friend.
“Can I ask you a personal question?…Were you sexually abused as a child?”
“Oh, yes. Repeatedly. I’ll tell you all about it the next time you’re down.”
This conversation took place in 2002 between Susan and her mother, referenced as both Eva and Eve, during one of their routine weekly telephone calls. Eva, at eighty-six, dies two months later, never given the chance to elaborate. When Susan travels to Houston to settle her mother’s affairs, she discovers an album among Eva’s things, which includes the photo that appears on the cover of this book: “I saw the way he looked at her, touched her in the photos. He’s the one. It’s him, isn’t it? The pedophile.” With that, Susan decides to learn more about how the man in the picture, Uncle Jim, came to hurt Eva.
The book’s structure is sophisticated, as it is at once memoir, biography, and fiction. Eva’s life story and Susan’s attempt to make sense of it, along with her own reactions to Eva’s mothering style, are the two narratives at work, both told chronologically while addressing the themes of mother-daughter relationships, abuse, and sexuality. For instance, Susan admits to having an odd and turbulent relationship with Eva, but in Susan’s self-analysis, she falls short of implying that her mother had trouble accepting Susan’s sexuality.
The stories’ facts are based on written artifacts, such as journals and letters maintained by Susan and Eva, while the fictional aspects are details Susan imagines to add texture. For example, the prologue describes what it might have been like for nine-year-old Eva to shop for a photo album with Uncle Jim.
Unfortunately, pictures of Eva, photos of her family home, and excerpts from her album are in the back of the book instead of close to where they are actually mentioned in the text. There is something contrived, and at times irrelevant, about the use of historical information (e.g., life in early twentieth-century Connecticut and during the Vietnam War), though it is meant to provide a portrait of the period. What stands out is the care with which Susan unravels the complexity of her mother’s relationship with Uncle Jim, a man who took advantage of Eva and her destitute single mother.
Though Eva will never be able to confirm Susan’s interpretation of her story, Susan finds closure, making peace with the pain her mother endured as a child and as a mother attempting to reach her daughter. This book might lead some to make amends with people who seem difficult to love, and to consider that there may be underlying causes of that difficulty. Knapp proves that this reconciliation can take place even after death.
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