May 04, 2000 News » Cover Story

Daughter's Dance 

In a recent Salon magazine piece, in which she recommends six books on the first wounds of childhood, author Jayne Anne Phillips offers these words on literature in general and the evolution of an artist:

"Truth or fiction? It doesn't matter. What matters is literature as a means of survival and descent into mystery, the knitting together of time and loss into meaning and everpresence -- not the denial of death, but death's utter defeat, the triumph of language."

In MotherKind, Phillips more than lives up to her own standard.

The story of Kate and Katherine, daughter and mother, and the year Katherine succumbs to cancer while Kate gives life to Alexander, her first son, MotherKind could easily succumb to coming-of-age clichs and feel-good motherhood platitudes, but it does not. Like Phillips' previous works (Black Tickets, Machine Dreams, Shelter) which have frequently focused on the intricate dynamics of family, MotherKind surprises with its tough knowledge of what it means to be caught in the defining moments of family, and, ultimately, how that knowledge makes us human. It is as if in the years between Shelter, Phillips' last book, and this one, she has plumbed the depths and come out on the other side -- older, sadder, even more introspective and infinitely wiser.

Kate and Katherine are unique in the currently popular genre of mothers and daughters, where daughters are usually depicted as resentful, independent creatures who struggle not to become their haggard, stunted moms. Katherine is exquisite in the eyes of her daughter, a woman who came into her own late in life and who bears the standards of beauty and grace that Kate fears she lacks. The novel doesn't focus on the need to separate but looks instead at how the inevitable bonds are changed and colored by Kate's own experience of motherhood.

A version of the second chapter of MotherKind, published previously in Granta as a stand-alone piece, describes the aftermath of birth in detail that will return any woman who has ever experienced it, right back to those fuzzy, first days:

"Her milk let down with a flush and surge, and she held a clean diaper to one breast as she put him to the other. Now he breathed, exhaling slowly. The intense pain began to ebb; he drank the cells of her blood, Kate knew, and the crust that formed on her nipples where the cuts were deepest. He was her blood. When she held him he was inside her; always, he was near her, like an atmosphere, in his sleep, in his being. She would not be alone again for many years, even if she wanted to, even if she tried."

A subplot involving Kate's husband Matt's two children by a previous marriage and the difficulties of step-parenting are equally well drawn. And Phillips depiction of a woman just entering her elder years, experiencing recurring cancer, chemotherapy and dependency on a child for care, is clear-eyed, accurate and unsentimental -- but heartbreaking, nonetheless.

MotherKind will resonate for mothers and daughters, for anyone who has lost a parent or stands to lose one, for anyone who has had a child or wondered what it would be like to give birth to a child -- in short, for anyone who has marveled at the short dance of a family's life across the face of a vast and unpredictable universe.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

I wait for Ellen Gilchrist's books the way some people wait for birthdays -- and when they come, I swallow them up in one huge, overindulgent gulp.

Gilchrist's latest collection of stories returns us to Mississippi, where she is most comfortable, to the homes and lives of patrician, affluent, literate people who stumble through marriage and courtship with insatiable hunger and undying optimism. The title novella, "The Cabal," though blessed with a strong premise -- everyone's favorite psychotherapist goes nuts and dies tragically -- is the least successful.

Far better are the five short stories that follow. In "The Big Cleanup," we are happily reunited with Miss Crystal and Traceleen, contemporary best friends in New Orleans who came together first as mistress and maid, many years ago. "Hearts of Dixie" follows a grandmother, a successful businesswoman in Kansas City, home to Mississippi to pull together the various strands of her family, her past and her present.

My favorite story, "The Sanguine Blood of Men," is a biting, irreverent commentary on what happens beneath the surface when women and men try to seduce each other into successful business dealings.

Gilchrist satisfies, even when she supplies us with nothing more than a big, calorie/cholesterol/sugar-packed birthday cake. I'm still licking my fingers.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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