Cover of book: Mothertongues

Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell

Almost the first thing you find in Mothertongues is a QR code to the soundtrack that singer–songwriter Keppie Coutts created to be part of the reading experience. This work, co-written by Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell, is in a category all its own, exploring the living concept of motherhood across a multitude of forms that move from whisper to cacophony, from tragedy to hysteria. It’s sweet and sour. Ivory tower academic meets music hall meets melody.

Out of the fragmented lives of two young mothers, the authors present a vivid sweeping display of what goes on in the minds of women who find themselves suddenly in charge of new life in the context of 21st-century chaos. The whole thing is a kind of huge conversation as performance. Absurd? Oh yes. “Absurdism really captures something about motherhood,” they write in “this new age of rage”. They search Google for the names of absurdist writers, and of the 30 names they find, “there’s not a single woman”.

Mothertongues is a kind of frank communal memoir that brings into the light a cornucopia of details, minute and vast, culled from the lives, minds and hearts of the co-authors. These are two people who pull no punches. Prepare to be hurt. Prepare to be seduced into awe and helpless laughter. Prepare for wisdom.

Just about every literary form you can think of pops up here. Odysseia – spirit of everywoman, wandering mother-heroine – appears, longing for the peace of home that may follow the derangement of motherhood. She is warrior, witch, widow, wife, weeping willow. The voices of Homer and Joyce hum and roll deep beneath the surface of this book’s boundless polyphonic discontinuity. Siri and Alexa, mothers of daughters Abacus and Bingo, discuss their experiences of motherhood. As one character, a physiotherapist, says, “the only sane response is to give in to the madness”.

Once, the bare facts of motherhood were “shrouded in secrecy, kept apart from the rest of the official human discourse”. Not any more. Pain, joy, rage, grief and ecstasy jostle in these pages. Moving from Shakespeare to Ionesco, from A.  A. Milne to Aristotle, the reader is embraced by the pleasure the creators have had in constructing this text of feminist insights par excellence. From pelvic floor exercises to finding the emoji for “giving yourself shots in the bum during IVF”, it’s all here in Mothertongues

Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Mothertongues, Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell".

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