Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir


REVIEWED BY KEITH JONES


Marina Warner (William Collins: 2021)


The title of this memoir of her parents by Marina Warner warns us that this is not a story told straight. It recalls a time when she herself was too young to understand what was going on. In the teasing prologue to the book, Marina remarks that ‘Today would have been my father's 111th birthday; tomorrow my mother's 96th.’ So we should not expect clarity from her recollections of when she was a child.

At any time, writing about one's parents is difficult. We reappraise them as the years pass, and our relationship with them may remain complex and full of emotion. This book reveals much about the child who was to become Dame Marina Warner, as well as about Esmond and Ilia who brought her into the world in London in 1946.


The inventory of the title refers to the random collection of items which she retains now that the parents have gone, among them a box camera, a pair of shoes, some rings and a pocket dictionary. From these solid material objects Marina takes us on excursions into the vanished world after the war which she entered as a baby. These sallies are unpredictable and varied, partly reconstructed narrative, sometimes considerations of a time now gone.


Whose life has been mislaid? That word implies accident or chance. Nobody could have predicted that a colonel in the British army in 1945 might have met and fallen in love in Naples with a tall, strikingly pretty girl from Apulia to whom English language and middle class culture was alien. That they should have set up their home in Cairo in the days before the British were driven out was a strange destiny for both of them. These could be described as years which were mislaid, for the expatriate society of the late empire has now wholly disappeared. It literally went up in smoke.


Esmond and Ilia were ill-assorted. Esmond was a profoundly conventional man, who seems always to have wanted to belong to a society for which he had insufficient funds. He was an Etonian, a former member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford, and knew well ‘a narrow anchorage of cards and cricket, the school yard, the officers' mess, the house party, the supper club’. But he was himself 'mislaid'. Instead of London he had Cairo to provide the setting for the kind of life he wanted. Instead of the boards of lucrative companies he had W. H. Smith's bookshop in the back streets by the Nile. Nobody really knew what to do with him. Perhaps Marina never did, either.


Her relations with her mother were always richer, and this book reveals Ilia as a resourceful and admirable personality. Perhaps it’s Ilia, rather than Esmond, who best accounts for the remarkable Dame Marina whose writing we enjoy today.