I haven’t laughed out loud when I’ve read a book in such a long time. I certainly haven’t laughed so much that I’ve had tears rolling down my cheeks, to the point where my husband felt moved to put down his own book and say, ‘Tell me what’s so funny,’ which of course I couldn’t, because it’s never funny when you read out a single passage from a book, divorced of its context.
The other book I read last month induced tears of a different kind – almost. I’m sure if I’d been reading this book at home, rather than in the magnificence that is New York, I would have cried with sadness. But it’s heard to cry when you’re sitting in a hotel room in New York with Central Park, The Met and Fifth Avenue at your doorstep.
Both books were about motherhood, which is why I am discussing them together here. One was a memoir, one was a novel. But only one of them is still lingering in my mind as having excavated below the surface of the myriad emotions of motherhood.
Welcome to Your New Life
The first of these – the funny one – was a book I bought as soon as it came out: Anna Goldsworthy’s Welcome to Your New Life. I loved her first memoir, Piano Lessons, a wonderful story about growing up, a love letter to a piano teacher who helped shape both her career and her character, and a tale of finding a place in a family that seemed somehow different to everyone else’s notion of family. Welcome to Your New Life is about a completely different stage in Goldsworthy’s life, becoming a mother for the first time.
The beauty of this book was the way it captured the neurotic obsessions of first time motherhood. And I am far enough away from that phase that I can now see how neurotically obsessed I may have been, and can understand that other mothers may have felt the same. Anna Goldsworthy lays her anxieties bare and in doing so makes us feel that it is a shared experience; that we are not alone in the strangeness and wonderfulness of the first few months of life with a newborn. In this way, the book does what the best kind of memoir does; it allows the reader to find themselves in someone else’s story.
Let me set up one of the scenes in the book that had me crying with laughter. Goldsworthy and her husband decide to rent a cottage in the country to escape the heat of the city, and escape they do, with eight week old baby in tow. When they get to the cottage they discover that their idyll is nothing but a fantasy: the cottage has no air-conditioning, thus making it hotter than the city they have escaped from, but it has, horror of horrors, a drop toilet. As soon as Goldsworthy sees this, she snatches the baby from her husband and declares that the baby must never go in there, for fear of it falling in. Then she lies awake in bed with the following going through her mind:
Even though Nicholas has said he will not take you in, he does not properly appreciate the threat.
There is a danger that he will forget and take you anyway, and then accidentally drop you in.
And there is the additional danger that he might take you in his sleep.
It is important that I remain awake to prevent this.
But if I stay awake now I might fall asleep tomorrow, leaving you alone with Nicholas and at greater risk.
All of which circumnavigates itself around to the fact that, despite her best intentions, Goldsworthy herself could sleepwalk the baby into the drop-toilet and perpetuate the very disaster that she has spent all night defending it from. The baby will not ever be safe, really safe; anything could happen to it at any time.
Now I have never lain awake for fear of my immobile baby somehow falling down a drop toilet, but if had, I would also have imagined that it would somehow be my husband’s fault (sleepwalking with a baby into a drop-toilet?!), because, let’s face it, in those dark weeks with a newborn baby, everything is someone else’s fault and your husband is usually in the firing line.
I loved this memoir. My only nitpicking comment is that I wished the later scenes, when the baby becomes a toddler, had the same balance of specificity peculiar to Goldsworthy’s experience and also of emotional commonality to the reader’s experience. I felt that the latter scenes became more generic, and could have been about anyone’s child, rather than this specific child and this specific relationship.
The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman was the second book. This is a book that almost everyone I have spoken to has loved and that moved them to tears. I am either hard hearted, or the euphoria of New York was working its charm on me but I did not cry. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t affected by it, but the plight of the mother and child in this book didn’t make the kind of emotional connection with me that I was expecting.
Before I get on to the reasons why I think this was the case, let me quickly summarise the book. It is about lighthousekeeper Tom and his wife Isabel, who live on a remote island off the West Australian coast, tending to the lighthouse. One day a boat washes ashore with a dead man and an live infant inside. Tom and Isabel, who has suffered a string of stillbirths and miscarriages, decide to keep the baby and pretend it is theirs. You can probably guess that, after a time, this doesn’t go smoothly.
The book is a page-turner. I was interested to find out what would happen. But while that is one of the book’s strengths, I think it was also one of its weaknesses. The narrative looks at the immediate impact of the child being taken away from Tom and Isabel but doesn’t tackle the emotional consequences beyond the first year of the loss of the child. We skip from the child making an adjustment to her new home, and Tom and Isabel reconciling and moving away, to a time decades in the future where Tom is an old man and Isabel is dead. This is, to me, where the interest lies, in those intervening years. Once Tom and Isabel move away from their home town, the baby’s home town, without the baby, how do they survive the loss? What happens to them every time they see a child who looks a little like their lost child? How do they fill the empty space in their days? How do they reconcile daily life together without the joy of the child they shared? These are the most difficult questions to probe and explore and I felt let down that they were not addressed.
The other aspect of this book that jarred a little was Tom’s characterisation. I found him to lack complexity; he seemed unchanged throughout the entire story, beginning as a good man and ending as a good man, who always did the right thing, no matter the consequences. While this is personally admirable, it makes for a flat character. I wanted him to behave in an unexpected way at least once, to break out of his stereotype, to come to life a little more.
Despite that, both books I have reviewed here are worth reading. ML Stedman’s book has done so well, which is terrific, but I hope that Goldsworthy’s, which is certainly the better book, will also do well for her.
If you’ve read either of these books, what did you think? If you loved The Light Between Oceans, what did you think of Tom’s character? Am I being too hard?
These are my ninth and tenth reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge – I have achieved my goal of ten for the year already! Of course I’m not stopping now, more reviews will be forthcoming.