Mothertongues by Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell review – a bold experiment in form | Books


How do we capture something as complex and chaotic as becoming a mother? How do we survive it? In Mothertongues, acclaimed author Ceridwen Dovey and writer and actor Eliza Bell – both mothers – attempt to answer the question by way of a deconstructed, genre-bending collaboration. As Bell puts it in the intro: “As an artistic form, absurdism really captures something about motherhood.”

The form of Mothertongues is striking. It sits somewhere at the intersection of experimental non-fiction and auto-fiction, borrowing liberally from other genres and forms to create a collective, meandering narrative about the early years of motherhood, when mothers are pushed to the boundaries of themselves again and again. Bell and Dovey weave together their reflections, using theatre, life-modelling, text messages, memoir and the hero’s journey as vessels for their experiences. It is an experiment in form (which Dovey, the author of Only the Animals and Blood Kin, is known for) that works in tandem with its topic: motherhood is lived in fragments, in bursts of clarity and in relentless, exhausting repetition.

When it works, Mothertongues is a triumph, the abstract structure making space for the absurdity, wonder and grief of motherhood to step through into the body of the reader. It is immersive and thrilling in these moments, particularly as a mother – to feel surrounded and held in this way. But this free form occasionally becomes too loose, the bonds between the parts either sagging or feeling forced. Even this, though, is part of the experiment: not everything is expected to resonate. As Bell reflects early in the book, absurdist theatre doesn’t present us with a single satisfying narrative – but it can offer glimpses of insight:

“When I watch these kinds of plays performed – the absurdist ones – sometimes I think, This is terrible! Even though I know the experience of confusion and frustration is very deliberate. But then, after a while, something pops – a poetic image that is briefly beautiful even if I don’t understand it.”

There are plenty of these moments throughout Mothertongues – these briefly beautiful “pops”. The way in which Bell is introduced to the reader as a character onstage, posing as a life model for a room full of anonymous artists. The soundtrack released alongside the book, by Keppie Coutts, which offers moments of pause throughout. The oddly insightful/banal text messages between AI assistants Siri and Alexa: two absurd fictional characters whose friendship transcends months of no contact, and surreal non sequiturs. The tiny shards of domesticity – discarded lists, the contents of a handbag – that are at once insignificant and profound.

There are plenty of the other moments too: the deliberately confusing or frustrating ones – scenes that hang in limbo, or tangents that stray a step too far. But these, too, say something about motherhood: the unfinished conversations; the standing in front of the fridge at midnight, wondering what you’re doing there.

Not all mothers will see their struggles reflected here; the experience of motherhood becomes doubly complex among women of colour, queer mothers, disabled mothers, in ways that go largely unexamined. Mothertongues may have roots in memoir but it is also a collaborative and experimental narrative, making this oversight unfortunate and unnecessary – and preventing a broader scope that would truly speak to the communal experience.

What may resonate more universally is the genuine friendship that so obviously exists between both writers, who refer to it in their individual acknowledgements and in the book itself. “Until you stepped into my life as a friend and muse – I hope it’s not too much for me to call you that – I would never have dared say a single thing about motherhood,” Dovey says at one point (although it could just as easily be Bell; their narratives aren’t always neatly distinct). “It felt like either it had all been said already, or that to say it truthfully would feel like a kind of self-murder.”

Where parts of the book are flawed, or where the experiment doesn’t quite work, there is this vulnerability to keep it together. Even as they try on a myriad of forms, Bell and Dovey display a genuine commitment to exposing themselves as mothers. The rawness of these moments captures something fundamental about the way mothers look to each other to survive and understand their experiences.

Motherhood can be luminous and infuriating. It can be deeply, intensely lonely. It can be a time of intense connection. It can be all of these things at once. Mothertongues is many things – an anthropological study, an artistic experiment – and most of all, a bold, exciting attempt to preserve the moments whose significance is fleeting and too often denied.

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