Last week I read Tessa Hadley’s ‘Everything will be all right’, an exploration of mother/daughter relationships over three generations, as well as a reflection on the enormous changes for women and society over those decades. I found myself living inside the characters’ heads, always a sign of a good book for me. So I was surprised to find out that Tessa’s novels have sometimes been underrated, because they aren’t so much ‘literary’ novels as ‘women’s’ novels. In an interview with the Guardian, she remarks: ‘It’s such a hornet’s nest, but absolutely fascinating to me as well: the whole thing that, if you’re a woman, and you write about families and relationships, you have to do a bit of work to make sure people don’t dismiss you. You have to place yourself, to say: ‘These are thinking books.’*.
It reminded me of Merrill Joan Gerber, the novelist who featured in Mary Trunk’s stunning documentary, ‘Lost in Living’, which I viewed at a private Brighton screening last month. The film itself was heartrending viewing: following the lives of four mother artists – a film-maker, two visual artists, and a writer – over seven years and chronicling their ambivalence, balancing acts, decisions, passions and despairs. Gerber talks with sadness of the lack of interest in her books after initial successes, because, it seems, they are about family life, which has become unpopular. She describes the way in which her short stories have been stereotyped because they were published in women’s magazines.
This is one of the reasons I am writing ‘Wild Motherhood: Keeping the Creative and Spirit Fires Alive’: to open a space for discussion around the de-valuation of women’s, and in particular mothers’, work, values and priorities. Literature, provided it’s well-written and observed, is no less thought-provoking and intelligent because it concerns women’s daily lives and preoccupations, than ponderous ‘literary’ tomes that are divorced from what forms reality for most people: family life, or ‘domestic ephemera‘ as my friend Kat Soutar calls it in her illuminating photo/writing blog. However, I have often longed for more meaning in women’s fiction – less reliance on old repetitive plot-lines that usually feature a man as a ‘saviour’ or rescuer. This is why I was so excited to discover Tessa Hadley, with her finely-nuanced characters and lyrical language, who fortunately has written several books – I’m now on ‘The London Train’ which I’ve hardly been able to put down for two days.
*Ref: Alex Clark, The Guardian Books, 26 Feb 2011