Monday, February 16, 2009

The Divided Review

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood
What do you do when a book has a great concept, but a lousy execution? I don't know whether to recommend, excoriate or plain old ignore The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood by Rachel Power. It's one of those books I saved until a special day (yes, I hoard my treats), only to find it bitterly disappointing. And yet it's necessary and wonderful, too.

The book is a collection of interviews with women who combine art and motherhood. I am deeply moved by the stories and insights these women offer, whether it's about the physical demands of breastfeeding or more abstract observations about the gifts and struggles of family life. As someone who is a sometime writer and mother, I recognise myself in these stories. And, to some extent, all mothers will recognise themselves here. Juggling children, partners, work and an interior life is not a province exclusive to artists by any means.

But even more than recounting the great juggling act, many of the stories tell honestly of the contradictions in our hearts. We may desperately miss our children when we are working, and desperately want to work when we are hanging out with the kids. We may be happiest playing games and cooking with our children, but for that niggling voice that will not go away asking us to write, draw, work, sing. Having children can ground us and give us a deep foundation, and provide a rich well of experience to draw from, yet make it incredibly difficult to take the time to produce anything. So many of the stories touch on these contradictions, these divisions in our hearts, and it is a privilege to share the insights.

And yet the book is so disappointing. It is written in a breathless journalistic style. Each story retains an interview format, and we get tabloid details such as where the interview took place and what the subject looks like. People use floral cups and drink capuccinos.

Just as bad, these strong powerful women, all masters of expression through story, theatre or song, apparently sigh, laugh and exclaim their comments. I feel like I'm reading an Enid Blyton novel. I am just waiting for something to be utterly ghastly, or people to converse over lashings of ginger beer.

Worse, the author is clearly awed by her subjects, yet paradoxically doesn't have the grace to get out of the way. She intrudes her own, often inappropriate, voice into their accounts, sometimes for two or three pages before we even get to the interviewee. Names are dropped left right and centre, and it's as if she thinks everyone else's greatness might rub off if only we knew that she had spent time with them.

Personally, I don't care whether the author travelled in a taxi, a palanquin or a hot air balloon to meet someone, or if the interviews were performed on the telephone while the interviewee was sitting on the toilet. All that matters to me is that these important stories are recorded and shared, and that the interviewer get the hell out of the way so that we can hear her subjects' voices clearly.

It is a testament to the power of good stories that, despite the writing style, the breathlessness in the face of celebrity, and the authorial intrusion, they shine through. For although I am so frustrated by the writing that I want to throw the book against the wall, I also find myself lying awake at night thinking about this insight or that, all the richer for having read it.

This book may have been better had it been a collection of stories written by the women themselves, rather than a series of fawning interviews. Or perhaps these women's voices already speak to us through their work, and we could look there for any glimpses into the world of art and motherhood that they may wish to grant us.

> Rachel Power The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Fitzroy: Red Dog, 2008).

1 comment:

  1. I have only just seen your review and it is very humbling and also interesting for me. When I devised The Divided Heart, I wanted it to be a book of interviews, no embellishments, just question and answer. Or I wanted the questions taken out just to leave the stories in the women's voices. Every publisher I approached said readers nowadays expect a narrative drive and that my voice would have to be in there somehow to make it compelling/readable. It was the: why is it you who feels the need to be writing this? question. So I suppose the result is that some readers love that aspect of the book and some hate it. The confusing thing is this idea of fawning. Without wanting to sound merely defensive (which is hard to avoid, I suppose), I suppose I felt strong admiration for all the women in the book, celebrity or otherwise, and was grateful for their willingness to take part. I feel sorry that this might have come across as starstruck in places, as this wasn't really how I felt. I was equally excited by the opportunity to talk to every one of the artists involved--and if I wanted anything to rub off it wasn't any sense of glory but more the sense of determination and commitment they all showed. Anyway, I'm glad the book offers you something and that you still dip into it. I love your idea of setting aside work days--wish I'd thought of that!