Of Myths and Mothers

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Read 30/04/2022-01/05/2022

Rating 4 stars

Of Myths and Mothers is a collection of five short stories that mix folklore with futurism and question the nature of motherhood.

I went to the launch event a few weeks ago and heard readings from the stories that encouraged me to buy a copy on the night.

The lead story by Gaynor Jones is a reverse Handmaid’s Tale. ‘May We Know Them’ is set in a future where society has largely collapsed, where existence is eked out, and where motherhood is not permitted. Into the lives of Juliana and Helen comes Moses, a child of sorts for Juliana to care for. Jones skilfully builds up backstory through flashback to flesh out the characters of her protagonists. It’s a peephole into an unsettling world and your own parental instincts will guide you towards the character you understand best.

‘How to Dress a Rabbit’ by Clayton Lister has a floridness about the prose that made me think of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The narrator’s words are a contrast to the broad Yorkshire dialect used by his mother and grandmother. There was also something archaic about the tale, with the witchy old grandmother in her remote tumble down cottage out on the moors near Settle. It’s a story about single motherhood, ruptured and fractious family relationships, and the ancient animal nature of birth and death. I really enjoyed it. It was my kind of wyrd.

Helen Nathaniel-Fulton’s piece, ‘Memory Chip’, is creative nonfiction, an account of her decision to move to West Germany with her boyfriend in 1978 and her experiences in the workplace there, among the gastarbeiter from East Germany. She moves from being invisible in her first job to too visible in a later one, each situation carrying a racism against the mostly Turkish immigrant workers that left a bad taste in my mouth. The prose is clinical, reflecting the jobs and the workplaces the author occupies. In between the work, her relationship is stagnating, suffocated by her realisation that she and her boyfriend are incompatible and her reluctance to walk out on him. It takes a potentially fatal incompatibility for the author to see her boyfriend honestly and to acknowledge her own thoughts on motherhood.

‘The Last of the Nest-Gatherers’ is my favourite story in the collection. I was transported by the reading its author, Sascha Akhtar, gave at the launch event, and the full story didn’t disappoint, taking a turn I didn’t expect. Set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, it tells the story of a family of busyadores, nest-gatherers who earn their living collecting the nests of swiftlets to sell for bird’s-nest soup. There is a mythology about how the swiftlets, known as balinsasayaw, came to build nests in caves using their saliva. There is also a belief that the nests have healing properties when eaten, making them a sought after commodity. This is a morality tale that warns against disrupting the balance of nature. Humans are greedy and ignore the warning signs that they are taking too much from nature, until it is too late, and nature has nothing left to give.

The final story in the collection, ‘Pass Through the Waters’ by Kenzie Millar, mixes letters and diary entries with third person narrative to tell the tale of Cassie and her daughter. Following the loss of her husband to the sea, Cassie moves to a remote seaside cottage. Here she encounters a mythical creature, a selkie, whom she befriends, talking to her each night at the shore. She doesn’t mention the truth of her new life in her letters to her sister. Soon enough, she and the selkie become a couple, and the selkie’s skin gets locked away in Cassie’s husband’s old trunk.

This is an affecting collection that presents different notions of motherhood alongside a range of mythologies from the religious to the racist via the magical. It’s available from Fly on the Wall Press.

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