My Launch of Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood
ONCE upon a time, long, long ago in a far country, the people always spoke to each other with politeness and respect. On an aircraft, I remember, the pilot would speak to the passengers after take-off, saying: ‘It is an honour, a pleasure and privilege to have you with us today.’ An honour . a pleasure and a privilege. Over the years, and in another country, I have often rehearsed those flowery words to myself, but I have never actually used them. However today I rejoice to be able to say:
It is an honour, a pleasure and a privilege to have been invited to launch Danielle’s most astonishing book.
Mothers Grimm is a themed collection of four stories which are introduced by a Prologue. Before the Prologue there is a warning from the Scottish poet Liz Lockhead who says: Nobody’s mother can’t not never do anything right.’
That’s very sad, for mothers, and for everybody I suppose. And the Prologue goes on to clarify the idea that there are Good Mothers and Less Good – or even bad – Mothers, and it ends by explaining that everybody knows why it is that in fairy tales the Good Mother is always dead. The good one may be dead, but the bad one is, it seems, always pretty unhappy one way and another, and she ends up, at the end of the final story in the book, where the mother, speaking to her adult daughter, says (spoiler alert)
‘I do know that I’m standing here, that you’re walking away, and that my heart is breaking in two.’
That sentence gives you a clue to the beauty of this book – the magic is in the cadences, in the images, in the language – in other words, in the writing. The result is a collection of stories that are vivid, and above all, moving, intensely moving. They are sharp, yet they are tender and poignant.
Have you ever looked at a young iceberg lettuce? How’s this for a description:
‘…the icebergs were building their own hearts, inner leaves folding like pale green hands around a secret.’
For this is not chick lit, this is not romance, this is where fairy tales are turned on their head, where the narratives tell it as it is.
You know how some of the popular Grimm stories go:
The good mother dies, the father takes a new wife, the daughter gets a bad mother who is cruel to her. By the intervention of magic the daughter finally rises above it all and marries a prince. The new couple live in harmony to the end of their days.
That’s not how the stories in Mothers Grimm go. You see there’s NO MAGIC. And there’s none of this harmony until the end of their days either. I’ve said the girl ends up with a broken heart. She does.
These stories are disturbing, disquieting, ironic; they take middle class Australian families in the 20th and 21st centuries and prize them open, looking deep into their hopes and fears, into the gulf between desire and reality, into the consequences of being human. Beneath the surfaces manufactured by the social norm, the characters are so soft, so vulnerable. Danielle has a gimlet eye for detail, and a precise, poetic language at her command. And pace, these stories have such rhythm and pace.
Make no mistake, they are also funny, sometimes very funny indeed. They skate swiftly between laughter and tears in a bright wicked dance. This is a fine form of satire, satire with flair. The pregnant women at the yoga class are told to focus on their inner sunflower. Very bright, very yellow. Yes. Every action, the characters know, has an equal and opposite reaction. It does.
These stories don’t veer from real life in an attempt to conform to the fairy tale genre. No, but the motifs of the fairy tales you know constantly thread and weave and insinuate their way through the fabric. You hear close echoes of Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hans My Hedgehog, Sleeping Beauty. Danielle has achieved this with great style and skill. She will offer you a fairy tale suggestion, and then undermine it with blunt modern language and imagery.
She says: ‘You reach womanhood and although there may not be a spindle, there will be blood, a curse, and some little prick.’
So what of the men in these stories? I can tell you they are not handsome princes, for one thing – but you could have guessed that. You might like a little description of some sex:
‘She freed the slender, bendy young stem of his cock from his pants. It reminded her, almost disgustingly, of a Vienna sausage, the skin a bit baggy and peeling at its tip. She stripped off her knickers and spread the flared skirt of her dress out over his chest and hips and thighs. Not quite, she thought, the use her mother had had in mind for it.’
I did say this wasn't going to be romantic.
If there is something all the mothers here need it’s sleep. Some get it; some don’t. In the story called ‘Sleep’ it comes in the most terrible way possible, and here is a description of it:
‘She is dreaming of sleep, and in her dreamsleep she is also dreaming, and in that dream, she dreams of being asleep. She sleeps and dreams without any intention to wake, sleeping as if between two mirrors that shrink her dreams in endless recursion to the prick of a pin: a pin upon whose head dance infinite angels, each of them whispering ‘sleep’.
This book will keep you awake at night, in the way that good books do. I think it’s called unputdownable.
Pick it up and plumb the depths of motherhood – if you dare.
I congratulate Danielle, and I say again that it is an honour, a pleasure and a privilege to be here to launch Mothers Grimm.
September 7, 2014
Fuller’s Bookshop, Hobart