Salena Godden’s Springfield Road begins with a letter that is addressed to the author’s imagined future child, in which she writes about her own enigmatic father – words penned for an absent son or daughter about an absent parent. Indeed, Godden’s childhood memoir is at times haunted by a sense of absence, of loss and yearning. This is most poignantly the case when Godden describes the aftermath of her last remembered meeting with her father:
I searched everywhere in the universe and in everything you touched in my world for your scent, for flakes of your skin, for the strands of hair, of each minute of that afternoon… That afternoon became a shrine, a cave. I stroked the walls of those few hours with all five senses, second by second… Those few hours are an animal carcass. I devoured all its tender flesh. I boiled the bones to make a glue soup to keep us together and I slept in the hide of the beast to dream of you.
Here, Godden uses the primal imagery of caves and animal hides to emphasise her instinctive, compulsive yearning for her father, combined with synesthetic and complex visual metaphors, to stunning effect.
In other parts of Springfield Road, Godden attempts to reconstruct sections of her past that she cannot fully remember. She relies heavily on ‘borrowed memory’, piecing together images from her own imaginings, informed by old photographs, diary excerpts and letters: ‘I created a mental scrapbook story of who the other half of me was. By borrowing memories from these stories, I imagined our life before [our father] left’. In this way, Godden is able to play with memory, teasing and fashioning it into existence: ‘If I am eight months old then it is winter. Cancel the summer sunshine I had previously imagined…’
Godden describes her memoir as a ‘ghost story’, but we should remember that Springfield Road is also a ‘love story’; it’s an ode to childhood in which Godden recalls ‘being closer to the ground, to the cracks in the pavement’, remembers Drumstick lollies and sailor-shaped bottles of Matey bubble bath and reminisces about the playground days when ‘Coats became goalposts and cardigans were spread out on the ground for beds in the make-believe rooms of houses, hospitals or castles’. Throughout, Godden writes about a past that is at once deeply personal yet also belongs to the everyman figure; her descriptions of childhood are simultaneously timeless and yet rooted in a particular period of British history, in which racism was an everyday occurrence and playtime was politicised with chants of ‘Thatcher, Thatcher… the milk snatcher’.
Arguably, the power and beauty of Springfield Road lies in Godden’s ability to capture a child’s perspective in her writing. The memoir superbly conveys the youngster’s mixture of curiosity and blind acceptance, of blissful naivety and the uncomfortable grappling with things ‘going on above my head in the realm of the adults’. In one episode, in which a young Salena and her brother find out about a death in the family, Godden writes: ‘I saw my reflection in my brother’s eyes; they were black as teaspoons of treacle, dark and shiny. I was looking into two black pools of my own pain’. Here, the treacle simile is borrowed from the realm of childhood, emphasising the juxtaposition between innocence and experience and Godden’s naive struggle to convert the adult notions of suffering and death into something she can understand. Another charming moment in the memoir sees Godden picturing her grandparents’ tea tray on which a map of Jamaica is depicted: ‘I thought of Jamaica as a faraway place on a shiny, varnished bamboo tray with the different parishes of Jamaica depicted by images of hummingbirds, flowery birds of paradise, palm trees and coconuts’.
In the Afterword to Springfield Road, Godden speaks of her initial reluctance to dig out the ‘skeletons in the closet’, afraid of what she might find. It is a testament to her writing that she manages to flesh these skeletons out, turning sepia photographs into Technicolor sequences that capture the essence of her past. The memoir goes beyond merely mourning the absences in Godden’s childhood, also celebrating the richness of life as she knew it. Godden expertly balances the scrutinising of past events through an adult’s eyes, so as not to be short-sighted, with viewing things through the rose-tinted glasses of youth, creating a beautifully written and touching memoir in the process.