Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Is Mother Dead, translated by Charlotte Barslund, interrogates the cultural expectations placed on ‘woman’ and ‘mother’, and offers a stark and powerful addition to the growing body of ‘motherhood’ texts, writes Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie.
Is Mother Dead (Verso) is Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel to be translated into English by Charlotte Barslund, following the success of her prior novel, Will and Testament (published in English in 2019). Whilst Hjorth’s recent release has a slow beginning, I urge the reader to continue on. Is Mother Dead is an equally compelling read. The novel opens with a romanticised image of a ‘fraught artist finding her roots’, but Hjorth unsettlingly punctures and transfigures this trope, leading us to question the reliability of our narrator’s account. The story goes as follows: thirty years estranged from her family, Johanna has returned to Oslo, her hometown, for a major retrospective of her artistic work. Her father is dead, and her mother and sister have broken contact. Johanna’s son, John, has left home, her partner Mark has died, and now, nearing her sixties, she wants to piece together the broken memories that she has of her estranged mother. Interrogating the complexities of becoming woman, and of the otherness culturally inscribed within becoming mother, Hjorth’s newest novel examines female mental health, the role of the past in the formation of one’s identity and the jarring relationship between what she calls the “actual” and “mythical” mother.
Despite the closeness of Will and Testament to Hjorth’s own familial past – not to mention the response she received from certain family members following its release – I will not argue that the author is simply ‘a thinly disguised version’ of herself in Is Mother Dead. (For those interested in this topic, Sophie Collins covers it in detail in her poetry collection Who is Mary Sue?). Hjorth’s contemporary Sheila Heti has noted in interview that there is still a strong tendency to assimilate a woman’s writing to her personal life. Whilst novelist Jamaica Kincaid, when asked about the autobiographical links between her life and work, once replied, “it’s not about me…it’s about things that I’m familiar with…It’s about something deeper”. For Hjorth, this ‘something deeper’ is about female self-identification; of working out whether a daughter can understand herself distinct from (her relationship to) her mother – and if so, how?
Reading as a daughter, some lines puncture me more than others: “Dad didn’t notice anything, of course, but how could Mum not?”, “Mum sensed it”. They speak to the bond in m/otherness that arises when a daughter is becoming woman – working out with, in opposition, or adjacent to her mother what this prescribed identity will mean. In true psychoanalytic fashion, Hjorth puts it so: “the mother is a mirror in which the daughter sees her future self and the daughter is a mirror in which the mother sees her lost self”. Indeed, without chapters, and flashing, sometimes dissolving in sentences, between incidents from her childhood and present day speculations, Johanna begins to see (or rather, create) a set of remarkable similarities, and closenesses in spirit, that she shared/s with her mother. As Johanna recollects, “a rift appears in the present, a hole opens up in time”; memory, a portal, through which Johanna begins to fuse her own experiences of solitude with the isolated images she remembers of her mother. For Johanna, there is a near doubling of characters, particularly when she sees her own son John move to begin his life in Copenhagen, across the Atlantic Ocean from their family home in Utah. Following his move, and pondering how close to be with one’s children, Johanna is left to consider the role of a ‘good mother’.
In Is Mother Dead, Hjorth asks us to consider the personal and psychological conflicts that can arise when one body becomes two, as well as the social implications that come with this new, and perhaps unchosen, role of ‘mother’. As poet Adrienne Rich writes: the “institution of motherhood” is an expectation, a rite of passage, that “aims at ensuring that that potential [to reproduce] — and all women — shall remain under male control”. This institution is manifest in the “yellow [house] with white windowsills and a white door and café curtains with yellow flowers in the kitchen window” in which Johanna grew up. It is the space in which Johanna’s mother became m/other. It could be a scene from Betty Friedan’s Problem That Has No Name (1963). It is clean, uniform, open, with nothing to hide: outwardly good, morally right. It is a trap. It is the symbol of this institution, quite opposite from what Rich calls “mothering”; a creative, joyful experience, an active decision to care for another.
Indeed, the myriad of conflicting social expectations placed upon a woman and her body sit central to Is Mother Dead. In one austere scene, Johanna follows her mother into church. She is confused as to how her mother could have “converted to something as all-embracing and serious as the Christian faith and still…[not] want to see me”, but then she realises that her mother simply “goes to church to cry”. Her “frail” body “shakes”. It is an image of absolute solitude. The church is bone cold. For women, there is a lot in the world about which to cry. For Johanna’s mother – the child of an unstable upbringing, tarnished in her community by her daughter’s dark and “ugly” ‘Mother and Child’ paintings, and stranded, in her eyes abandoned, by Johanna, the one other who might have understood how alone she felt in the world – even more.
Covering raw and prescient themes, Is Mother Dead is a rich but unsettling read. At its most moving, the novel explores female solitude and the dissolution of the nuclear family, as well as experiences of mental illness and the complexities of maternal identity out of the world of the novel and into wider cultural conversations around the ‘good mother’. As Hjorth writes when referring to the film Love Actually (dir. Richard Curtis, 2003), “mothers are often absent in feel-good films. The maternal figure, warts and all, triggers emotions far too complex for feel-good”, her presence brings us too far back to real world concerns. As such, there is very little space given to the diversity of experiences associated with motherhood in contemporary cultural production, especially outside of cult artworks or publications. In response, Hjorth offers a stark addition to the contemporary body of motherhood texts by authors like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Maggie Nelson, all of whom serve to challenge aestheticised ideas and images surrounding maternal identity. There is a bluntness, or rather clarity, to Hjorth’s approach. As a daughter (with a mother), and a woman (with the potential to become a mother), one line stays with me: “I wonder if Mum always felt that being my mum was incompatible with being herself?”.
Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth and translated by Charlotte Barslund is published by Verso and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Feature image includes a photograph of Vigdis Hjorth by Agnete Brun. Images courtesy of Verso Books.