Mothers in Fiction: The Marvellous, The Mean and Everything in Between, by Carrie Dunn, (Crooked Rib Publishing, 2012).
This is an adorable revisionist trail through literary history in search for “the mother” in all her narrative guises. Starting with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, ending with Sarah Walters and visiting many Victorian novels on the way, Dunn takes us on a tour of her personal favourites. She searches out mothers with personalities and personal flaws, and where she finds information lacking she projects and builds upon what the author left under-developed.
The book is liberating in the sense that it confirms some of our deepest suspicions about classic texts and ask us to really ponder them afresh. Suddenly, instead of asking ourselves what Hardy is saying about the whole social structure in Jude the Obscure, we are asking ourselves if Sue Bridehead really was a repressed lesbian. Dunn has the ability to energise classic texts and bring them back to a human level. She reminds us never to be intimidated as critics, or as leisurely readers.
Having said this, the book works best when it is discussing a text in which the author seems genuinely interested in developing the mother as a well-rounded individual, rather than using her as platform for the real subject of the story. It is a delight to be retold the narrative of Little Women from Marmee March’s position, mainly because Alcott gave her readers something to work from within her book; and Dunn a lot of material from which to project and tease out inner workings from. Where the source material is sparser, it is nevertheless interesting to see Dunn rise to the challenge of creating a tangible sketch of an allusive character.
This is a fun and concise read. It is not subtle, and it is playful to an extent that it cannot be taken seriously. However, it is recommended to anyone who wants to get back into the mind-set of reading the classics; or wants to be reminded of some familiar tales from and unfamiliar perspective.
Reviewed by Katherine Parker-Hay, Library volunteer.