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

How do you grasp something as complex and chaotic as becoming a mother? How do we survive it? In Mothertongues, acclaimed author Ceridwen Dovey and writer and actress Eliza Bell – both mothers – attempt to answer the question through a deconstructed and evolving collaboration. As Bell says in the intro, “As an art form, absurdism really captures something about motherhood.”

The form of mother tongues is striking. It sits somewhere at the intersection of experimental non-fiction and self-fiction, borrowing liberally from other genres and forms to create a collective, meandering narrative about the early years of motherhood, when mothers are pushed again and again to the limits of themselves. Bell and Dovey weave their thoughts together, using drama, life modeling, text messages, memoirs, and the hero’s journey as vehicles for their experiences. It is an experience of form (for which Dovey, the author of Only the Animals and Blood Kin, is known) that goes hand in hand with its subject: motherhood is experienced in fragments, in bursts of clarity and in repeated relentless and exhausting.

When it works, Mothertongues is a triumph, the abstract structure leaving room for the absurdity, wonder and heartbreak of motherhood to enter the reader’s body. It’s immersive and thrilling in those moments, especially as a mother, to feel surrounded and held that way. But this free form sometimes becomes too loose, with the bonds between the parts sagging or feeling forced. Even that, however, is part of the experience: not everything is expected to resonate. As Bell suggests at the beginning of the book, absurd theater does not present us with a single satisfying narrative – but it can offer insightful glimpses:

“When I watch these kinds of plays being performed – the absurd ones – sometimes I think, It’s awful! Although I know that the experience of confusion and frustration is very deliberate. But then, after a while, something appears – a poetic image that is briefly beautiful even if I don’t understand it.

There are a lot of these moments in Mothertongues – these briefly beautiful “pops”. The way Bell is presented to the reader as a character on stage, posing as a life model for a room full of anonymous performers. The soundtrack released alongside the book, by Keppie Coutts, which provides moments of pause throughout. The oddly insightful/mundane texting between AI assistants Siri and Alexa: two absurd fictional characters whose friendship transcends months of no contact and surreal non-sequences. The tiny fragments of domestic life—discarded lists, the contents of a purse—that are both insignificant and profound.

There are plenty of other moments too: the deliberately confusing or frustrating ones – scenes that hang in limbo or tangents that stray a little too far. But these too say something about motherhood: the unfinished conversations; 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 color, queer mothers, disabled mothers, in ways that are largely unexamined. Mother tongues may have roots in memoirs, but it’s also a collaborative and experimental narrative, making that 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 evidently exists between the two writers, who reference it in their individual acknowledgments and in the book itself. “Until you came into my life as my friend and muse – I hope it’s not too much for me to call you that – I would never have dared to say a single thing about motherhood,” Dovey says at one point (although it could just as easily be Bell; their stories aren’t always perfectly distinct). “I felt like it had all been said before or that saying it honestly would feel like some kind of self-assassination.”

Where parts of the book are flawed, or where the experience doesn’t quite work, there’s this vulnerability to keep it together. Even when trying a myriad of forms, Bell and Dovey display a genuine commitment to exposing themselves as mothers. The rawness of these moments captures something fundamental in how mothers look to each other to survive and understand their experiences.

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

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