Not Speaking is a touching memoir by Norma Clarke, sister of celebrity hairdressers Michael and Nicky Clarke. Based in London, but of Greek heritage on their Mother Rena’s side, the Clarkes are a typical boisterous family of the time, living on top of each other, the kids bicker and fight, and their parents, Rena and Bill are just trying to muddle their way through. We learn that Bill was a British officer stationed in Athens following World War II, where he met and fell for the feisty and obstinate Rena, and before long he’d proposed to her and brought her back to England, specifically London, where they set up home. As the title suggests, things are not always rosy, and when the book is written, there is division in the family following a large argument over the now-widowed Rena’s living arrangements, conducted over email in 2014. This forms the backbone of the story and gives us an insight into the minutiae of siblings and their complex relationships.
As the book progresses, Norma uses long passages of Greek Mythology, Robert Browning and other writers to demonstrate how women within her family were treated, and also to give us an insight into what Rena’s life, and that of others, was like for example, under the Nazi occupation during World War II. Some of it is heavy going, but an important read to anyone who is not already aware of what the Greek people went through. There’s a lot of Homer’s Iliad, a little too much for my liking. While I understand why the author included these sections, even as a huge history fan, it did begin to feel a little like a school lesson for me, and to be honest I got a little distracted from the original memoir, and on a few occasions, I’m sorry to say – even a little bored.
That said, the memoir aspect was interesting and I felt as though I really got to know the characters, though I wonder how much of that was down to the fact that Michael and Nicky Clarke are fairly well known, at least in the celebrity hairdressing world (although personally, I knew of Nicky but I didn’t know of Michael). The main character is the matriarch Rena, and while she is entertaining, I found her to be quite selfish and self-obsessed, especially in the parts of the book that dealt with Louki. I felt for Norma, the daughter who can never do right and for Bill, the husband who I suspect didn’t know what he was really letting himself in for with his Greek bride. I liked the thread of family that ran through the whole memoir, but if it didn’t have that ‘celebrity’ hook to hang on, I’m not sure what the USP of this book would be.
An interesting and well-written memoir.
Thanks to The Pigeonhole for inviting me to read this novel for an honest review.