The Unquiet Daughter is the sort of memoir that cannot fail to grab the attention of a Catholic writer – or reader – simply because of the connection with Graham Greene. Author Danielle Flood discovered early in life that the man she knew as Dad was not her father, a devastating revelation that led her on a quest to discover the truth about her origins in Saigon and the apparent connection between her parents’ lives and the plot of Greene’s The Quiet American. The similarities are tantalisingly close, far too close to be coincidental; as Flood writes in the Prologue: “I came from a love triangle much like the one Greene describes in this novel. I am the sequel he never wrote.”
With the publishing world saturated with Misery Lit memoirs replete with tales of abuse and abandonment, a reader might fear that this memoir will be yet another tale of childhood horrors. But The Unquiet Daughter goes well beyond those well-worn perimeters. As sequels go, Danielle Flood’s life story could easily be a Graham Greene novel, full of dark twists and turns, betrayals, heartbreak and the saddest of all forms of unrequited love – the unanswered love of a daughter for an indifferent and abusive mother. In the blink of an eye – or so it appears to the young Danielle – her happy family unit is torn apart with the abrupt disappearance of her adoptive father. He returns to the family home only long enough to take his two daughters away, leaving Danielle without a father figure and the company of her two beloved sisters, abandoned to the whims and fancies of an increasingly narcissistic, bullying and controlling mother, ‘the Dragon lady.’
What sets this memoir apart from so many others is in the honest way Flood explores the toxic effect on a child of years of relentless emotional manipulation. Danielle Flood was the victim of both physical and sexual abuse at times (her mother attempted forcibly to find out if she was still a virgin) but what is most evident from Flood’s harrowing account is the indelible harm done by abuse that leaves no marks. Treated alternately as a servant, nanny to a much younger sibling and a pointless waste of space, it is the intense loneliness and emotional isolation the child experiences that is the most heartbreaking. Not only is she permanently shut out of her mother’s affections, but her mother’s controlling behaviour makes it impossible for her to form close relationships with anyone else.
Flood’s search for her birth father is moving and at times imbued with humour. As befits the inspiration behind a Graham Greene character, Flood’s birth father turns out not only to be English but to be everything she imagines an Englishman ought to be, down to his tendency to say ‘jolly good’ and ‘veddy well’ in answer to every question (it did make me wonder whether I sound like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel without realising it, but perhaps my American friends are just too polite to comment). The discovery of roots in a country to which Flood had always been drawn, gives a sense of resolution to Flood’s years of painful searching without sentimentalising the difficulties faced by adults attempting to reconnect with a birth parent they have never known. The wife of Flood’s birth father clearly feels threatened by the sudden appearance of a previously unknown love child and quietly undermines their precious moments together. The tension is all too believable, but so is the joy experienced by father and daughter as they cautiously reach out to one another. That is another factor that sets this memoir apart: forgiveness and healing are at the heart of the story and the author’s ability to forgive is almost as powerful as the complex plot itself.
It may be a personal bugbear of mine, but I am not a fan of the literary habit of trying to capture a character’s accent using phonetic spelling. It is either laborious to read or comes across as cliched and a little patronising. One of the only aspects of the author’s style that I found needlessly distracting was her constant mimicry of her mother’s thick French accent: “Zee body eeze beaut-ee-ful” “never let a leetle boy touch you” and “he owes me so much moan-nay you know.” So the Dragon Lady was a native French speaker; no need to hammer it home.
The major disappointment for me was that the Graham Greene connection was not more central to the book. The linkage between Danielle Flood’s parents and the characters of The Quiet American is the book’s major selling point, but this absolutely fascinating story is mostly crammed into the Prologue and Epilogue. The Graham Greene connection contains everything a truly compelling tale should have: an exotic setting, intrigue, a love triangle, honour and betrayal, not to mention the tragic human consequences faced by the innocent offspring left to pick up the pieces. I would love to see the story of Danielle Flood’s parents fleshed out into an epic tale of its own that could be read in parallel with Greene’s work of fiction. This was rather what I expected to come across when I first opened The Unquiet Daughter and I can think of no better author to pull off such a feat than Danielle Flood.
The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love
by Danielle Flood
Piscataqua Press, 2016
Paperback, 386 pages