Judy Batalion’s mother is a hoarder, and Batalion will do nearly everything, it seems, to avoid living in the filth and clutter that overwhelms the house in which she grew up in Montréal, Canada. Moving halfway around the world to England, she keeps so very few items that her minimalist apartment sparks criticism from a boyfriend for not being a home.
Perhaps to understand the role of things in our lives, she researches living rooms as part of graduate study on domesticity as a co-curator at a museum. But Batalion’s carefully-ordered life is constantly disrupted: out of love, and to support her father and brother, she rushes home many times in response to her mother’s occasional paranoia and suicidal breakdowns. And then comes the ultimate disruption, marriage and motherhood, with the many challenges inherent in building healthy relationships and living with two adults’ and a baby’s worth of stuff in a small New York apartment.
But this story is not a simple tale better suited for reality television. White Walls presents a unique yet by now familiar story of the continuing effects of the Holocaust on the survivors’ descendants. Batalion’s grandmother was a survivor, and her mother was born in Europe after the war. The Holocaust is not the focus of this memoir, but the history is inescapable. The tuna cans piled high in Batalion’s mother’s kitchen bring to mind food scarcity among the ghetto; the memories from Batalion’s grandmother interrupt with a well-founded suspicion of who may or not be trusted. It all combines into a compelling, raw narrative about the strength of the mother-daughter relationship through challenges and on to the next generation.
White Walls would not be expected to be chronological, and indeed, Batalion makes liberal use of flashbacks and flashforwards. The jumps between time and space are somewhat clarified by headers at each jump, each containing a mini-title, location, and date. This helps to keep the connections between stories, but it is possible to lose the narrative thread. The writing is otherwise clear, engaging, and direct, which makes it easy for a reader to understand the facts and emotions that the author endeavors to communicate.
Particularly strong are Batalion’s descriptions of her family members and other people in her life. Her mother’s obsession and mistrust are front and center, of course, but Batalion’s father’s patience and love and her husband’s crucial support and cool headedness come alive as well. Even the so-called the minor characters — coworkers, medical professionals, friends, boyfriends — play a key role, and Batalion excels in demonstrating how these people have shaped her outlook on life and love. Overall, White Walls presents a powerful account of a difficult subject through what is fundamentally an enjoyable, rewarding read.