Are We There Yet? Travels with My Frontline Family

Rosie Whitehouse’s account of motherhood  is  about  uneasy   juxtapositions: “The sun  is  shining  and  it’s  exceptionally warm. How can a war start today?” It’s about exploring identity: “Suddenly, I realise I have come to Berlin to find out what really matters when you fall in love with and have children with someone from a different culture or a different religion…You become ethnic gender benders.” It’s about her husband and her marriage (here, she doesn’t hold back): “I’m so excited to see him, I can’t wait to make love to him and as a result the contractions start.” Above all, it’s about having very, very interesting children: “I have a three year old who wants to know what communism is. I’m delighted. I’m more than delighted – I’m ecstatic.”

 The irresistible husband is reporter Tim Judah, with whom Whitehouse has five intrepid and knowledgeable children. When Judah covered the Balkans, they  followed him to Bucharest, Sarajevo and Belgrade. When they moved back to London, Whitehouse began a career as a travel writer and off they went to Ireland, France and the Arctic to visit Father Christmas. There she noticed that “hard talking about the bleak side of life doesn’t necessarily destroy a child’s ability to enjoy the innocent, sweet things it has to offer. Santa restores my faith in human nature.” By human nature, she seems to mean her own parenting.

 She has discussed politics, war and history with her children since their cradles. They sound absolutely great. Their father is Jewish, and they have all been educated in French. By the age of eight, Ben seems to have been au fait with the main tenets of the political ideologies that shaped the twentieth century. They all speak with awe and envy of their father “watching history being made.” Tension rises in the house when Judah enters Kabul, but Ben’s main emotion seems to have been jealousy: “God! He’s so lucky! I wish I was there!” Dark humour offsets anxious moments. When Judah’s hotel was hit by a shell, his oldest daughter had an outburst of mock shame about the terrible embarrassment that her father was calmly eating a banana at the time.
Whitehouse’s stricture that it’s your own fault if you think your children are boring seems to hold good. But chaotic scenes of daily life do not, as I suspect the author intends, mitigate the sense that she might be boasting about them. It may be clear by now that the entire book is written in the continuous present. Consummate literary stylists can pull this off, but only for short stretches. The English language has a tense specifically designed to recount past events; telling them in the present does not make them more vivid, only more irritating. I can’t but mention this: Ms. Whitehouse, if you’re still reading, “disinterested” means impartial, not indifferent (see pages 26, 236 and 240).

Reviewer: Molly Guinness is a freelance writer based in London.