Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2022

Mothertongues (2022), by Ceridwen Dovey & Eliza Bell

Reading Mothertongues is so much fun, it takes a while to realise how political it is.

In a meditation that riffs on the kind of writing that women might do, the authors cite Rachel Cusk (paraphrasing Virgina Woolf): ‘the woman writer might have to break everything’.

Woolf’s call to action means rejecting the old art forms that we have inherited as women, the ones we still try to fold ourselves into, at great cost.  Rejecting the old idea that holds such sway over us: that only one name must be on a book of literary fiction or it is not worthy.  That a book must clearly delineate whether it is fiction or memoir, novel or stories, poetry or criticism.  That a single, coherent voice is what is most valued when it comes to literary merit. (p.241)

Well, it’s true that there’s not much collaborative writing about, but I’ve reviewed books written collaboratively, and Sue at Whispering Gums has more. And since the rise of ‘creative non-fiction’ the boundaries both between fiction and memoir but also hybrid texts of prose and poetry have blurred.  But let’s not argue: Mothertongues goes on to refer to Maria Tumarkin, (Update 5/4/22, see here) who suggests that…

…embracing innovation and experimentation, ‘hybridity of form’ and the unexpected, could save the Motherhood Memoir genre from collapsing under the excessive use of an irritating tone she describes as ‘smug-yet-astonished’ (she is, here, agreeing with Anne Enright).  Tumarkin still believes in the Motherhood Memoir.  She wants it to exist and persists.  She just wants it to be a whole lot weirder and more difficult to categorise.  So do we.  We also want to be able to write an experimental book of bio-autofiction about motherhood and not have it immediately tagged as memoir.  Who knows which shelf it will end up on in bookstores… but the not-knowing is part of the point. (p.241-2)

Well, dear readers, I can assure you that Mothertongues is not a Motherhood Memoir, because I wouldn’t have read it if it were, see my review policy. (The ones I’ve come across haven’t been smug or astonished, they’ve been whingy, mundane, boring and probably hurtful to the children if they read it.) Mothertongues is as much about the madness of modern life and it’s often very funny.

At Bunnings, looking for a metal connector thingy for the washing machine tube to attach to the pipe, I notice they are described as ‘male’ or ‘female’, and named after specific body parts.

Brass compression female lugged
Brass compression elbow female
Brass compression elbow male
Brass compression union female
Brass threaded black nut
Mini cistern cock white
Hex nipple reducing galvanised

There’s a whole erotic subculture thriving at the back of the musty laundry cupboard.  My washing machine has a more active sex life than I do. (pp.149-150)

The book is a collage of absurdism: Beckettian scripts; poetry and song; fragments of prose; lists; conversations (my favourite being the convo between AI assistants Siri and Alexa seeking advice from each other about motherhood); text messages and emails.  There are letters too, from a protagonist called Odysseia, whose mission it is to return home after years of mothering.  The first one ResignationLetter.docx is a bit over a page in length, and it’s addressed to the principal.  Odysseia explains how her teaching philosophy and personal character would be better suited to a school with more open-minded and humanist leadership. One that doesn’t interrogate her about her absences in spite of medical  certificates documenting my daughter’s legitimate illnesses.  One that recognises her strengths and professionalism.  The second letter is saved as SensibleResignationLetter.docx and is four lines long, giving notice and sending best wishes to the students.

O, how often do we do this, write a truthful explanation with elements of a rant about our grievances, and then delete it all, because what’s the point?

Whether wrestling with motherhood or not, we all need a friend like Meryl.

I have a friend, Meryl, who’s invented this imaginary character—a tough, capable, no-b/s-taking woman making her home in the badlands of the American West.  Whenever Meryl is wondering if she’s enough of a mother, she thinks about Frontier Meryl, who is rendering animal fat out back of her wooden hut while her kids play with the hatchet.  Frontier Meryl is down in the stream pounding all the clothes clean with a rock.  And she asks herself, Would Frontier Meryl worry about this? The screen time or the sugar or whatever the thing is she’s worrying about as a modern mother.  Would Frontier Meryl bother? The answer is always no.

Frontier Meryl deals daily with matters of life and death.  She mothers at the extremes, not in the comfortable middles.  Frontier Meryl is a safety check, a pressure valve, to make sure she doesn’t overdo it and inadvertently ruin everything.  Frontier Meryl says to her in those moments: Hey, honey.  Let’s not get carried away with this middle-class pretension. You’ve got it good—relax. (p.180)

The madness of modern life includes googling the sellers of a property one might buy.  (Buyers do this?  Who knew?!)  The sellers’ Instagram feeds reveal their work, their hobbies, their furniture, their bathroom accessories, their cookbooks and their intimidating baking, plus their inspirational quotes.  This is the catalyst for our authors to share Inventories of an Early Twenty-First Century Bedside Drawer. (Later on, there’s an equally droll inventory of their bags too.)

These reminds me of the David Attenborough segments, where he observes a New Mother and New Father in the wild.

In her shelter, during daytime, the New Mother can seem almost content, certainly self-sufficient.  She makes many cups of tea but never gets round to drinking them.  She is on her feet for hours.  Changing nappies, trying to settle the baby.  She is on her knees for hours too, on the playmat, doing shadow play against the walls, singing songs.  The New Mother has been told the baby will never learn to roll, crawl or walk if it doesn’t first master tummy time.  The baby hates being on its tummy more than anything in the world.

[I’m so glad I didn’t know this when the Offspring was an infant.]

But see what happens as soon as it gets dark.  That’s what behavioural scientists call the Arsenic Hour.  Whether because the New Mother wants to drink arsenic herself or give it to the baby remains uncertain.  Her agitation increases; so does the baby’s.  She is pacing, back and forth, trying to soothe the baby but also her own mind.  Observe how often she checks her phone. She is waiting for her mate to return home so that she can hand over the baby to another adult for the first time in almost twelve hours…  (pp.95-6)

You can almost see Attenborough there, with his binoculars, whispering to the camera, eh?

There are so many funny, clever and poignant elements in this book, I’ll share just one more:

There’s a guessing game my son and partner play in the car.  It’s about superheroes.  I’ve had to learn about this mythology.  What are my powers?

Making a baby from scratch with my body and then feeding it with a magical potion I keep on tap.
Loving all these people.
Laundry laundry laundry laundry laundry laundry.
Making myself disappear.

If you do Mother’s Day, buy Mothertongues for someone you love.  (The Offspring and I have a deal, that he can buy me a present any time he likes, except on Mother’s Day, but I used to do it for my mother, and we did it for my MIL too.)  Whatever, Mothertongues is an illuminating book for those of us who did our mothering decades ago when it seemed so much easier than it is now, and I’m sure today’s young mothers will enjoy it too.

Update, the next day:

Oops, I forgot to add the link to Ceridwen’s website, where there is a video of the songs.

Authors: Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell
Title: Mothertongues
Cover design by Alex Ross
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House, 2022
ISBN: 9781761043550, pbk., 308 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House


  1. Great review! I have written about my enjoyment of this book for a newspaper which confines me to 400 words. Now, a blog might be really where reviews are at – quote to your heart’s content, comment at your own speed. Yes!


    • 400 words, wow, I could never be as disciplined as that!
      But I wonder, we of ‘a certain age’ will find so much to love about this book, with its feisty feminist politics written with humour and razor-sharp wit. But I’d love to know what mothers who are in the thick of it now think of it… I hope they’re not too busy to read a book or two.
      I loved mothering when The Offspring was small, but I don’t remember reading much for the first couple of years when a dishwasher was an American fantasy and the twin-tub washing machine used to flood and wash the laundry floor for me.
      PS Which newspaper?


  2. Oh I remember when this came out thinking I’d love to read it – and you have confirmed that that was a valid wish!

    Thanks for the link!


  3. I did enjoy reading this review, and now I’ve put a reserve on it at the local library, and I really can’t afford another addition to my “to read” pile as it already will probably take me years to get through.. but I’ve been missing a book that gives me a good chuckle since I finished reading The Cook, so this one will get bumped up the list. Having escaped being a mother (except to multiple pets), I can now enjoy the Schadenfreude!


    • Oh gosh, yes, mothering pets, that’s not easy either because they don’t ever grow up to be able to tell you what they want.
      I guess love, in all its forms, is hard.


      • I think pets are easier than little humans! I have a sweet young mother living behind me in a rental with her first brand new babe – she’s so anxious and tired, poor thing – her Mum lives a long way away – so she keeps popping her head over the back fence seeking reassurance from me – but I didn’t do midwifery! I keep checking with a midwife I meet in the dog park, and then get back to the young mum with the correct response! Talk about a bush telegraph!


        • Oh that is hard. She’s lucky she’s got you, midwifery quals or not!


  4. Oh goodness, I love your reviews and comments policy, esp the list of genres (I do do some you don’t but don’t do many that you don’t either, esp miserable health and motherhood books!).


    • I think a lot of people are very tired of the misery memoir, but they feel guilty if they say so.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d read this for Frontier Meryl alone :-)


    • Oh yes, I think she is going to make it into the lexicon in many families.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I wasn’t going to read this, the whole motherhood memoir thing, as you said, but your review has changed my mind – thanks.


    • Trust me, Brona, it is nothing, nothing like a motherhood memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, sounds wonderful. My mothering was decades ago and I’m actually really glad I’m not bringing up children nowadays. As for misery memoirs, I really don’t like them, simply because they so often seem cynical and exploitative.


    • Heavens, yes. I think that being a parent would be a nightmare these days.

      Liked by 1 person

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