Carol Major – The Asparagus Wars

ES-Press, an imprint of Spineless Wonders, Australia, 2021
Cover illustration and design Bettina Kaiser and Imogen Rowe

This is a memoir, a series of almost stream of consciousness letters to the author’s dead daughter alluding to parts of her own life and their years together, including those leading up to her daughter’s death. It is an exquisitely painful and painfully exquisite work, not least because it is not fiction.

Carol Major talks about The Asparagus Wars

There is a fine line to be walked, isn’t there, in stories about love, death and grief. Somehow, one has to avoid being maudlin and self-indulged whilst at the same time capturing for the reader something which could be a shared experience of life. Carol Major gets it right.

The author’s daughter was diagnosed with the genetic condition Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy and later contracted bowel cancer. The various members of her family react differently to this – some try every cure known to man; Carol chooses to live in the moment and to make each moment beautiful. It’s not denial as such, but perhaps acknowledgement of the inevitable, without entirely succumbing to the horror of it.

After her daughter’s death, Carol makes multiple escape attempts and from one of these, that to the WW1 battlefields of north-east France, she writes the letters that are this book. We are invited into the intimacy of this correspondence, the repeated ‘do you remembers’ spoken to her daughter and the allusions to the author’s early life.

Here is the trauma of the unwed mother of 1968, the irony of society’s double standards not lost on us. Here is the sadness of relationships lacking love and fortitude. Here is the grinding misery of her daughter’s progressive disease, the wearing process of dealing with the bureaucracy, the small sparks of light in decorating a dreary featureless room to make it be Paris.

And none of this ever asks us to feel sorry for the author, none of it even implies blame or judgment on others, no matter the wreckage they leave. It is always Carol’s feeling that she bears guilt, is inadequate, has fallen short – and it breaks our hearts, for this is patently not so.

The Asparagus Wars (referring to an alternative treatment espoused by her daughter’s step-mother, Lillian) is profoundly moving, poetically written and spare in its emotion.

She quotes to begin from Rudolf Binding, a soldier from the Western Front in 1915, who writes:

The more I penetrate its true inwardness the more I see the hopelessness of making it comprehensive for those who only understand life in terms of peacetime, and apply those same ideas to war in spite of themselves. They only think they understand it.

If these things can be understood by anyone else, Carol Major comes as close as possible to helping us do so.

Thank you to ES-Press for my review copy and to Carol for speaking to me about your life and your book. Both have affected me deeply.