Rachael Matthews reviews The Home Child by Liz Berry (Chatto & Windus, 2023)
I’ve been reading Black Country poet, Liz Berry, since her Tall Lighthouse debut in 2010. About then, I started wanting to be a poet too, so I passed my copy of her first pamphlet (The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls) to a friend until I could put a pamphlet of my own into her trusted hands. Ten years later, my friend held both my pamphlet and my baby daughter. I’d entered The Republic of Motherhood, the title realm of one of Berry’s intervening books. That volume had been a tightly-held postpartum companion – its poetic truth of new parenthood closer, for me, to any literal truth of it. Berry’s new collection, The Home Child, is about a child too, but one forcibly put into unsafe hands.
By the time she was twelve, Berry’s Edwardian ancestor – her great aunt, Eliza Showell – had been orphaned, sent to a Birmingham children’s home, separated from her brothers, deported to Canada, and placed into domestic service in rural Nova Scotia where she stayed until her death, without family, in 1978. Scant records exist so Berry has imagined her onto the page in The Home Child, her new ‘novel in verse’. It is heart work and political work, rescuing one ancestor at a time: “Eliza, queen of all lowly creeping souls, / all toilers and darlings. All shunned things”. A hundred thousand of Britain’s destitute made the same journey in the hundred years to 1960.
Berry inhabits her relative’s story using a multiplicity of registers, standpoints and forms (song, prayer, hymn, letter, incantation)
Berry inhabits her relative’s story using a multiplicity of registers, standpoints and forms (song, prayer, hymn, letter, incantation) and un-mutes her from the off: “Piss off”, Eliza spits at a matron trying to cut off her hair. This single moment restores Eliza’s power and grants Berry’s poetic licence. Eliza’s shorn scalp “a field of stubble / after harvest” mirroring the fields of Cape Breton she’s headed to, and like a Chance card from Monopoly, Eliza’s case report instructs: “Proceed: to Canada”.
The lyrical tenderness of The Home Child sets up a shadow play with this sanctioned form of human trafficking: “A girl is a tinderbox to light all the world’s wanting”. The book is a chiaroscuro canvas. I pictured its scenes lit like a Joseph Wright of Derby painting – his macabre depiction of a grey cockatiel trapped in a glass cylinder, panicking as its air supply is withdrawn.
Berry helps Eliza in and out of creaturely guises. We first see her as a young fox, afterwards a horse: “her sorrel head / bowed”, “brown feet tough as hooves”, then as thrush, ferret, lark – the animal part of her surviving when other parts are shut down. She is deprived, isolated and worked to the bone. For solace, Eliza is given a rich inner life and a traditional heterosexual romance: “my body shed its fur and hooves / and was a girl’s again”. She meets a Glaswegian teenager, Daniel, an indentured orphan too. He’s sensitive, has wheaten hair, stutters and “… is a rattle-boned whammel, / a whelping, a loon”. But their romance is thwarted and she mourns loss upon loss: “Home’s not a place, you must believe this, / but one who names you and means beloved”. The fullness of Eliza’s real name (Girl Number 383 in transit; Lizzie McPhail in Canada) had found a home in her lover’s mouth: “And he says it, says it, says it so soft / it’s muzzle kissing my eyelids”.
How I wanted to love this Liz Berry book as I have its predecessors
How I wanted to love this Liz Berry book as I have its predecessors. The psychological effects of bereavement, displacement, neglect and forced labour, are not explored in any depth outside Eliza’s heightened attachment to Daniel and her mild rebelliousness. Mirroring the traditional love story is a traditional linear chronology (broadly) which can feel heavy, even though the narrative is episodic. And then there are the slightly Dickensian or Hardyeque overtones to the book. I have to admit to some irritation, also, at Berry’s persistent listing. The book is punctuated by nouns piled on top of one other, a common contemporary device, particularly when memorializing or describing the natural world. I wonder if it’s also a symptom of historical research – so many facts, names, places.
But for all that, Berry can break your heart. The unanswered letters in the book gnawed at me long after I’d finished it. Eliza writes to her brother James and is censored (internally or externally): “My people am farmers / and decent enough / but work me so hard / my bones crack at night …will you send for me?” James writes to her at the children’s home not knowing she’d been sent three thousand miles away, and gets a reply: “… in Canada she will be under the same kind and watchful supervision as she would have enjoyed had she remained in England”.
In interviews, Berry has shared how Eliza came to be ‘found’. She was busy tracing the history of another orphan – her childhood hero, Anne of Green Gables – when her mother’s ancestry research uncovered Eliza. She changed course. It’s as if she adopted Eliza and re-mothered her. In psychoanalysis, the idea that we can uncover an individual’s past and recreate it has lost its appeal. We now know that memory is embedded in inter- and trans-generational patterns, in bodies, in some type of social unconscious. Both women were simultaneously moved to pick up a broken thread. We could ask where the displaced child in all of us lives?
But for all that, Berry can break your heart. The unanswered letters in the book gnawed at me long after I’d finished it
Eliza, and those like her, were sent out of sight to save our shame. Poet Seán Hewitt notices that the narrative voice in The Home Child is sometimes spoken in collectives. But the ‘we’ of suffering is much easier for us to inhabit than the ‘we’ of culpability. Feminist critic Jacqueline Rose reminds us that the forces of darkness that underlie colonialism and ecocide are rooted in each one of us. We must continue the hard labour of owning and voicing that, rather than – in Berry’s words – “bite my tongue til it bleeds / and and— / shut that memory like a midden door”.
Aside from doing the work of transforming personal and familial ghosts into ancestors (as psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald, urges) surely there’s something of our present moment in “all its slum and love” that drove Berry to create The Home Child. I couldn’t read Eliza’s separation from her mother without imagining the US-Mexico border separations under Trump, contemplating the so-called removals to Rwanda, or thinking about the Ukrainian children at my daughter’s nursery shelled out of their bedrooms. Let’s try to be braver after birthing our poetry, to directly call out humanity’s catastrophic repetitions unfolding now, because as Simone Weil says, it might just be worth it: “We are not really without hope. The mere fact that we exist, that we conceive and want something different from what exists, constitutes a reason for hope.” (Oppression and Liberty, 1933).
Rachael Matthews’s debut poetry pamphlet do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom was published by The Emma Press in 2021. A former BBC journalist, she re-trained in Manhattan as a psychoanalyst, and completed a PhD on trauma and creativity. She currently lives with her wife in Sussex, UK, where she’s training in Group Analysis while a stay-at-home mum to their toddler daughter.