For a truly funny book about motherhood, look no further …

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

WTYNL_0

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-oceansThe 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.

13 comments

  1. Glen Hunting

    The passage you’ve quoted from Ms. Goldworthy has just brought forth a chuckle from this father-of-none. And in the middle of library, too.

    I think you are being just a tad hard on Tom. But I suppose it’s a question of what resonates. His war-wound and his mother-wound struck chords with me, as did his moral dilemma, and how none of these allowed him any lasting peace.

    I think you’re right to suggest that the emotional aftermath of Tom and Isabel losing ‘Lighthouse Lulu’ should perhaps have got more of a mention, even if it were only in terms of a gradual letting-go and a fading of the intensity of the feelings. But for me there was so much rawness and pain in this book during the period in which Lucy was relocated for the second time, and this is surely where it would be most keenly experienced by everyone if it happened in real life. And I felt the book said so much about loss and morality and the things that life both bestows and withholds. And none of the main players (except perhaps Lucy, though her character is necessarily the least well-defined) were unequivocally good or bad. Tom allows himself to be talked into breaking the law and witholding a child from her mother, even when he intends it as a gift to his own grieving wife. Isabel and Hannah both experience deep rancour as a result of what befalls them, and indeed Isabel wants to disown Tom for a time for supposedly bringing all this woe upon her singlehanded. All very human and compelling, even if bits of it are hardly pretty.

    Anyway, just my thoughts. 🙂

    • Well I’m glad to see that Goldsworthy’s book has wider appeal than just mothers; it is a great book and deserves to do well. Sorry about making you laugh out loud in the library though!

      And yes, you make some great points about Light Between Oceans. I agree that the rawness and pain of Lucy’s relocation for the second time would be enormous, but I actually felt it would be greater as time passed and the memory of her began to fade, as memories do. What would it be like to suddenly realise you no longer knew what she would look like, because 3 years had passed and she would have changed from toddler to child, what would it be like to be unable to recall some of the times you spent together because they had been lost to memory’s fallible filing system, what would it be like to contemplate, every day as years passed, her ongoing and separate existence from yourself. That is what would have moved me, an exploration of the deeper pain that would come with time passing.

      But I’m glad you shared your thoughts, it’s a good debate to have and I know that many people felt the same as you, because the book did so well. So it’s great to hear what others found in it, and why it was such a compelling book for so many.

  2. I did not like the Light Between Oceans either Natasha, so you are not alone. I didn’t connect with the characters nor feel the ‘realness’ of their story. It felt quite contrived at times and I finished feeling unsatisfied. I also couldn’t comprehend how you might keep a baby that wasn’t yours nor quite believe that a baby could just ‘wash up’ on shore. Anyway, as you say, it’s certainly got a following!

    • Yes, unsatisfied is a good word Bridget. I just wanted Stedman to have pushed herself a little further into the really difficult territory of long term loss. But perhaps if she’d done that, it wouldn’t have sold as well. And I’d be very happy to have sold as many copies as she has, and to have signed a move deal too!

  3. marlish glorie

    I’m afraid I haven’t read Welcome to Your New Life, and doubt that I will. Those days are behind me i.e. being a first time Mum and all the angst it brings! Still, it sounds like a great book for first time mothers.
    As for The Light Between Oceans, of which I was given a proof copy to review… urr, well….from memory, early on in the book I found myself struggling to read what seemed an inordinate amount of Tom’s back story. I gave up on it, and never did the review.
    But really happy that it’s done well, that in this time of great uncertainty in the publishing industry, one book has sold many copies. And that’s a wonderful thing.

    • Yes, you’re right Marlish. I didn’t mention the large chunk of back story at the beginning of the book because I wondered if that was just my nit-picking novelist’s eye noticing that. I did find it clunky, and I actually stopped reading the book and flicked back through it to consider other ways in which she could have drip-fed the back story through in a less contrived fashion. Talk about pulling yourself out of the fictive dream!

  4. I actually found Tom’s characterization to be a strength of the book. Writing my own novel with a character from a similar time, I struggled to make him consistent and masculine enough at the same time as trying to give him emotional growth. I think Stedman’s writing really showed me that this was possible for a female writer to do. But I didn’t cry either. The first part of the story was fantastic, the setting up of the situation, the building of the scenes and the relationships. But then she had to end it, and she really hadn’t given her situation many ways out. It descended into a crime and court sort of novel and I just didn’t connect with that. Also, as a customer pointed out to me, why did she stay on the island during her pregnancy after the first few miscarriages? Surely a doctor/ her family would not have allowed it. Not to nitpick… I did really like this novel! I just don’t think it’s the beacon of writing perfection everyone says.

    • It’s great when you find a book that helps you with something you’re struggling with in your own writing, isn’t it? I’ve had that happen to me many times, and it makes a book very special to you when it’s helped like that. And I do agree, it was definitely the last third of the book where my attention wandered and I found myself wanting more. She had backed herself into a bit of a corner, as you say, which is why I think it could have been a better novel if it had cut to a place where three or four years had passed, with Tom and Isabel living away from the town, and showing us how the loss had wrought change upon them. Hard to do well though, so perhaps she did the right thing by staying away from that.

  5. Glen Hunting

    Looks like I’m out-numbered so far…ah, well… 🙂

  6. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge Round-Up | While the kids are sleeping

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