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Posted on 26 May 2022 in Fiction |

EDWINA PRESTON Bad Art Mother. Reviewed by Annette Hughes

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Edwina Preston’s second novel conjures a rich portrait of the artist as a young woman.

The protagonist of Bad Art Mother, Veda Gray, finds herself unable to reconcile her duty to motherhood with her duty to her inner life of the mind. Much is bound up in the title. Does being an artist make her bad mother? Can a mother only make bad art? An artist needs time alone in thought; a mother’s time is not her own. When Veda’s son Owen drops like a stone into the tranquil waters of her solitude, her sense of self ripples out into a story of turbulent intensity.

Veda Gray is a country girl who has landed in the big smoke of mid-1950s Melbourne with a burning ambition to become a poet. She arrives into the midst of the fledgling arts scene that began to flourish in the wake of the influx of culturally literate refugees from a war-torn Europe. New ways of being, feeling and thinking began to emerge as Australia developed an appetite for foreign food, wine and ideas. Veda was right where she thought she belonged, living the dream in the cultural milieu that grew out of Australia’s first brush with modernism.

The novel opens 15 years later, at the book launch of her first collection of poems. It wasn’t easy to achieve. She hadn’t planned on getting involved with Jo, the young apprentice chef she hooked up with all those years ago at her first poetry reading. Neither did she expect to find herself married and pregnant by 1960, or realise what a gigantic handbrake Owen would be on her career. She certainly never dreamed she’d be among the movers and shakers inventing the brand-new Melbourne art world.

Movers and shakers like the Parishes. Mr Parish, older than his protégé Jo, is the celebrated poet of his generation with a passion for art. With Parish’s patronage, Jo builds his little trattoria into the hottest restaurant in town. Parish and Jo are also partners in a works-on-paper gallery next door to the restaurant, and life is a whirlwind of launches, openings and long lunches.

But all is not as fabulous as it seems. The young mother struggles to find the time required to write. She relies on Jo’s younger sort-of sister, Ornella, to babysit. And Jo happily takes Owen to the restaurant to be fussed over by Rosa, his star waitress, herself an aspiring artist. Enter Mrs Parish with an offer Veda finds impossible to refuse – to take Owen in as her own. The Parishes are childless and want to provide the boy with all the advantages money can buy. The catch is, they want to make themselves his legal guardians. Veda is torn, but with encouragement from her husband, who has no qualms at all about handing his son over to these people, she eventually relents and agrees to the arrangement.

The rest of the novel, narrated by Owen, is the story of those 15 years. Initially, he is a child of ten, and then flashes back and forth between his early childhood and 50 years later, when he is about to re-launch the same collection of his mother’s poems. But by this time, Veda has become a much-lauded feminist poet. The new collection is to be published with a companion volume of letters in which Veda narrates her interior life to her sister Tilde.

Such a complex temporal structure might seem confusing, but the reader is in good hands with Preston’s deft control of her plotting. Her prose crackles with fresh metaphors and acute poetic observations, revealing Owen to be much more than the neglected child of an obsessive artist. He has learned to see the world through Veda’s eyes and, like Sofie Laguna’s young characters, his voice is both innocent and knowing.

Now with a room of her own and Owen in the more conventional ‘motherly’ care of Mrs Parish and Ornella, Veda is left with no-one to blame but herself for her failure to achieve the success she desires. But the echo chamber of her inner life resounds with guilt in all those quiet hours, drawing her deeper into dark places that need a cigarette burning and a glass of wine always within reach. From the outside, she appears to be falling apart, but bright flashes of her inner life illuminate her letters to Tilde. Here, she writes of her hopes and dreams, her love for Owen, her ambition for her work and her great love affair with language. 

In this interior version of Veda, the child inside is still kicking. Her problem is not within – it is without. She knows her work is valuable, that she has every right to express herself, but convincing ‘respectable’ society that a woman’s work is more than just battling to keep a house from disintegrating is getting her down. Poetry is her life raft, each word a gasp to save her from drowning.

In a letter to Tilde, Veda interrogates the tension between her love for Owen and her need to write:

How does one protect them? Sometimes I think I would throw in every hope of my own, every dream of literary prowess or success, to protect him, even for one second, from any hurt that might come to him.

But would I, Tilde? Would I?

If it came to it, I wonder how I would make such a choice. I should hope that if ever given that choice I would make the right one, but I know I would resent it for the rest of my life. I would never be happy. I would be a bloody, injured banshee who ruined everyone around her.

What sort of a mother chooses a book over a child?

Sometimes I am not sure what I am capable of at all.

Indeed, Veda’s book itself is practically a character in the novel. From conception to birth, we follow its gestation and observe the effect it has on its progenitor. It is Owen’s difficult sibling, vying for his mother’s attention. He, of all of them, understands Veda’s devotion to it, because it is yet only half formed.

Owen addresses his narration to Ornella. She is the kind of mother everyone at school had – straightforward, no-nonsense, stern, and above all reliable. She packs his school lunch and makes him do his homework, doesn’t have a ‘creative bone in her body’, and doesn’t really approve of Veda at all, but she accepts Owen into her care as she would a lost puppy. Her love was a ‘solid geometric affair. A big square love. Mondrian-like, primary-coloured. It did not change or wrinkle or forget its purpose,’ like his mother’s. His narration is cast almost as an apology to Ornella for his continued loyalty to Veda.

Mrs Parish is more like a grandmother to him – doting and kind, but emotionally distant. Hers was ‘a delicate, hands-off love that seemed not quite solid enough to withstand life’s difficulties; a wind through the open window might desiccate it. It was, I guess you’d say, impressionist.’

But Owen remains his mother’s son, and there is nothing for it but to figure out how to love her.

It is not necessary to know the historical figures or the art history on which Preston’s characters are loosely based, but it is important to know that women of Veda’s generation had only their own wit and courage to rely on in the face of Australia’s crushing patriarchy and misogyny, embodied here in the behaviour of Mr Preston towards both his wife’s work, and Veda’s.  Simone de Beauvoir had only just published The Second Sex in 1953, and Germaine Greer would not publish The Female Eunuch until 1970, the year of Veda’s book launch, when Owen was ten. For women to escape their constricting social and cultural straitjacket was a constant struggle. Their only option was to remain steadfast in their own vision and do the work.

In her moving address at the opening of the 2022 Sydney Writer’s Festival, Nardi Simpson spoke of her Yuwaalaraay concept of ‘bringing the culture through’; bringing all that came before you and all that you experience into the present, and passing it through to the next generation. All of it, with no omissions, because the bad is as important as the good; the wrong and the right give meaning each to the other. As Owen ages, the whole world changes around him into the world his mother imagined for herself.

Owen is the holder of all Veda’s knowing, all that she loved and dared to dream, all of her failures and triumphs and all the compromises she refused to make, bound in the pages of her book. All bound up in the pages of this book, Bad Art Mother.

Edwina Preston Bad Art Mother Wakefield Press 2022 PB 336pp $32.95

Annette Hughes is a singer-songwriter performing with Geoffrey Datson in their duo Datson Hughes. Their second studio album, Now and Forever, is out now on vinyl: www.datsonhughes.com

You can buy Bad Art Mother from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

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