If you thought from the title of Danielle Wood’s latest novel, Mothers Grimm, that it comprises a retelling of fairytales you’d be right – and wrong. Right, because the stories contained within do springboard from specific fairytales, but wrong if you expect the new stories to be retellings. The wordplay on the title – Mothers Grimm/Brothers Grimm/Grim Mothers – sets the tone. This is a clever, wicked, funny but also heartrending look at modern motherhood.
Now, if you’re not an expert in fairytales, you might be relieved to know that it’s not necessary to know the source story to understand Wood’s “version”. While knowing the source story may add a lovely (and clever) fillip to our understanding, Wood’s stories stand well on their own. The collection starts with a prologue, which also draws from a fairytale, Hans My Hedghog. Here, Wood puts on a pedestal and then takes apart the idea of “the good mother” showing it for the myth it is, that is, an idea primarily concocted by advertisers to show us the way to perfect family life. Wood writes this opening section in second person, gathering us effectively into her wisdom. She shows us the “truth” behind the myth but assumes that, deep down at least, we already know it: “You could tell them [the literary scholars and psychoanalysts, she means] exactly why it is, in fairy tales, the Good Mother is always dead”. I knew by the end of the Prologue that I was going to like this book.
The thing about the myth, of course, is that no matter how much we might see its falsity, we still get pulled in. Why? Because we want to be the best mothers we can, we want to do the best for our children, we want them to be better and happier than we were/are. It’s a big ask, as life has a way of showing – and if life hasn’t, Wood certainly does. So, how does she do it? After the prologue, there are four stories: Lettuce (“Rapunzel“), Cottage (“Hansel and Gretel“), Sleep (“Sleeping Beauty“), and Nag (“The Goose Girl“). In each, Wood takes the original concept and spins a tale that can be darkly funny at times, but that is always devastatingly honest. This is a book which must surely bring a rueful laugh to most parents, but is perhaps best kept away from potential or new ones – though, if I remember my own youth, I probably wouldn’t have believed it anyhow. Sometimes empathy really does spring best out of one’s own experience!
In “Lettuce”, a beautiful pregnant woman is envied by the other women in a pregnancy yoga class. She seems perfect and becomes the focus of their obsession and envy. The story is told, third person, through the eyes of one of the mothers, Meg. Now Meg grew up with an earnest, sheltering mother who somehow missed the point about joy and pleasure. So when young Meg is introduced by a school friend to the delights of eating only the cream out of cream biscuits (Orange Slices, to be exact), she is shocked. She
couldn’t have said what exactly it was that was so profoundly bad about eating only the cream out of the biscuit, but she knew it was worse than just the waste.
Through gorgeous descriptions of familiar actions – such as how you twist a biscuit to separate its two parts and thus expose the cream – and by conveying often inchoate feelings or longings, Wood manages to expose the quiet deceptions and jealousies, but also the fear, confusion and love, on which motherhood is often built.
If “Lettuce” focuses on imagining an impossibly ideal “good mother”, “Cottage”, explores the guilt mothers feel about leaving their children in childcare. Nina makes a deal with her husband: he will support her staying home until their son goes to school, and she will not ask for another child. Best-laid plans – but of course we all know what happens to them. In this story Wood explores that still-familiar territory – the vexed question of child-care and the distressing way women judge each other. Indeed, mothers judging each other is one of the darker, sadder themes of the book. In this story, Nina’s dreams and ideals of motherhood are brought down, partly by her own unrealistic expectations (and oh, how I recognised those), but partly too by the economic pressures of modern life.
In “Sleep”, Wood turns to a teenage Mum. While the previous two stories are told third person from the perspective of one mother, in “Sleep” the perspective, though still third person, is shared, mainly between two sisters, Liv and Lauren. This is a well-to-do family, shamed by a teen pregnancy. There are wicked twists and wordplay here on the main motifs of “Sleeping Beauty” – the prick, and sleep – but in the end the story is about new mothers who do it alone. It’s about how easy it is to lose self and perspective when you have no support and don’t get enough sleep. It’s the most shocking of the stories – particularly because Liv doesn’t get the support she needs from the one she most needs it from, her mother.
And then there’s “Nag”, about Stella, a young woman who, trained as a nurse, goes about as far away as she can from her loving, but long-suffering mother. The story starts in 1958, and unlike the previous three, is told first person by Stella, who is telling her story to her daughter. She describes how she married:
He was twenty-two years old and starting to look about for a wife and I came to him like a lost banknote on a windy street: a windfall that he quite reasonably thought he may as well put in his wallet as throw back on the ground.
Stella finds herself, lonely, on a dusty farm with a remote, unsupportive mother-in law, and a nagging (I won’t reveal the gorgeous wordplay on this one) voice that tells her “If your mother could see you now, it would break her heart in two”. The focus here is the often fraught mother-daughter relationship.
What Wood shows is that grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are all complicit in maintaining and perpetuating the myth of “the good mother”. There is the occasional subversive mother, or the one who seems to steer an easy course through the minefield, or the one who manages to rise above the competition to reach out to a sister-mother, but for most the gap between ideal and reality defeats them. The “F” word – Feminism I mean – is not explicitly discussed but it lurks underneath. Indeed, I suspect many of the characters would eschew the word, but their lives and expectations are shaped by it nonetheless – and not, it seems for the better.
The accommodations and compromises, together with the emotional and physical losses, are grinding. I’m making it all sound rather grim (excuse the pun), and there is that, but it’s not what I came away with. The humour, warmth and lack of judgement with which Wood delivers her truths suggest that her aim is not to be negative but to shine a light on the issues and encourage discussion. If there’s a lesson to learn, it’s that there are many ways of being good mothers … and they start with being easy on yourself.