In Alice Robinson’s new book The Glad Shout, she shines a light on the frightening realities of climate change, transporting readers to an eerily recognisable near-future Australia in crisis. The novel is also a deeply moving homage to motherhood, told through protagonist Isobel’s relationships with her grandmother, her mother, and her own daughter. Here, Alice reflects on four stories that forego the dominant representation of the beatific new mother, to instead capture the bold – and often uncomfortable – truths of motherhood.
‘Five-Dollar Family’ in Like A House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
I was given Kennedy’s short fiction collection Like A House on Fire two weeks after having my first baby. Here’s how I introduced the collection on my blog then: What will knock the wind out of you in the first few weeks of motherhood is how time-consuming caring for a new baby is… the amount of slow, sedentary, quiet work that goes into simply nourishing this tiny person. Kennedy’s book, remarkably, cut through the fog. I cherished it. Particularly the story ‘Five-Dollar Family’, which portrays a new mother’s experience in hospital immediately after birth. Kennedy writes, ‘Let them poke and probe and pump her – she couldn’t care less. It’s like this big loose body, slack and sore, belongs to someone else…The person she’d been before the birth, in fact, seems like a dopey, thick headed version of who she’s become now.’ Here was my first inkling of evidence I was desperate to glean: that motherhood blasts apart everything that has come before it, that the work ahead does not just entail raising a baby, but groping toward whatever being a mother means, as well.
Lullabye by Leila Slimani
Lullabye, which earned the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, has been marketed as a thriller for the horrifying crime underpinning the narrative (no spoiler: it’s revealed in the first sentence). But I was most captivated by Slimani’s depictions of ordinary parenthood. She writes of the mother in her story, ‘She didn’t realise the magnitude of the task she had taken on. With two children, everything became more complicated…They’re eating me alive, she would think’. I wouldn’t have related to this depiction before children, but I feel such empathy for it now. The prevalence of complicated maternal feelings – and the fact that they are usually considered taboo to voice – chill and compel me far more than any bloodshed.
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
I recommend this exceptional French novella to everyone. A mother takes her two sons to the seaside to kill them (again, this isn’t a spoiler). Put like this, the narrative sounds extreme. But my strength of feeling for this book comes from the realisation that this single mother is acting from a place of desperate love for her children. Limited as she is in her world view, with no support, no money, no employment and no prospects, her back is to the wall. When she hatches her terrible plan, she is using the few tools at her disposal. We might not endorse them, but the novella convinces me: given her character and circumstances, what choice does she have?
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
A woman gives birth as waters rise in an imagined future London. Soon she is forced to evacuate with her newborn. Hunter’s prose is poetic and pared back, but the emotional resonance of this account of birth and early parenthood is powerful and accurate. Hunter writes, ‘Z opens his eyes a little more every day. I am constantly aware of the complex process of breath: how the heart has to keep beating, to bring oxygen to the blood…It seems that any moment it could stop.’ As civilisation collapses around her, this mother is both engaged in a fight for survival, and also cocooned in the all-consuming bubble of new parenthood. That tussle – between the political and the personal, the public and domestic, between being a woman and being a mother – seems to me to be at the heart of this novel, and at the heart of motherhood as well.