Book Review: Promise at Dawn (La promesse de l’aube)

I am no night owl. Though the night be long, the promise of repose always lures me to a deep sleep. I am awake at such unusual hours, and I just finished the book Promise At Dawn, an autobiographical narrative about a WWII pilot and the relationship with his mother. Though you could say Gary has major mommy issues, so much so that he writes an entire book about it, his book explores the way our relationship to our parents colors our relationships with people in our adult life. Gary is no follower of Freud, and I think is suspicious of psychology that pins people to their past.

Books move us for different reasons, and perhaps that is the glory of literature. Certain passages from the novel capture the unconditional love a mother gives you and the ramifications of experiencing it as a man. “With maternal love, life makes you a promise at dawn it will never keep,” Gary writes as he wrestles with that suffocating yet necessary maternal love that got him through WWII, a time of collective madness, as a good friend of mine once put it.

Gary describes his childhood with his husbandless mother, and the huge expectations she had of him: that he would be a famous musician, a new Tolstoy, an ambassador. Throughout the narrative, Gary returns to that role he has to realize  (miraculously he does). While many scenes are beautifully written, one particular one stands out in my mind- one dealing with the blackouts in London. He drifts at sea during that impenetrable darkness and thinks about his mother- what she must think of his time at war- and her presence swells even in that endless wandering and battling against men and nature.

I feel the same way at times, except that I never knew my mother’s expectations; what did she want me to become? What would she think of me as a man, a deranged writer that has the urge to help people? Whenever I think these thoughts, I, too, am on a boat that drifts, her presence like the pulsing life you know is there yet cannot see in a city about to be bombarded.

The memoir as a genre is difficult because the writer must detach himself enough from his own narrative to develop structure. Our lives, for the most part, are a series of incomprehensible and tedious moments, but Gary, in centering on his relationship with his mother and its evolution, anchors the reader. Every digression, which memoirs and autobiographical pieces suffer from, in Gary’s book seems to be tied to the deep and complicated relationship he has with his mother.

Though there are heartbreaking moments in this book, just like in any life, Gary says near the end that his time at war has not made him a cynic but rather that his life is often filled with a desperate kind of hope.  I’d like to think that all men with mommy issues can achieve great things…I must cling to my desperate hope then.


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