I have a great deal of time for writers who write honestly about motherhood. Well, about life, really. And for those who write beautifully too; I have a weak spot for writing that straddles the line between prose and poetry. Dawn Davies does both these things (writes honesty; writes beautifully) and oh so much more in her memoir, Mothers of Sparta. Her writing is brave and raw and physical. She uses sparklingly original metaphors. The kind of metaphors that knock you sideways and make you feel grateful to the writer for enlarging your experience of what you thought you knew and understood. Her writing never flinches from telling it how it really is, no matter how hard it is to receive – and, I imagine, to write.
If good writing is truth, then this good writing indeed.
In her ‘memoir in pieces’ Dawn Davies writes beautiful, lyrical essays. And in the spirit of these non-linear fragments that nevertheless create a whole, a life, let me offer up some of the pieces that I most enjoyed.
In her opening essay, Night Swim, Davies writes about glimpsing the futures of her daughters as she watches them swim at night – and accepting the pain that, ‘They will never stay yours, for they weren’t yours to begin with. One day they will leave you, shoot off into the sky, and take their place in the bigger constellation. And it’s your job to let it go. Let it go. Let it go. It’s gone.’ I have two little girls, like she does. Every day, I get a glimpse of their beauty and of how fleetingly they are mine. In this, and many other of the essays, I felt like she was writing straight to my heart.
Elsewhere, Davies writes about her parents’ divorce which happens: ‘as quickly as a summer storm, engineering a slow family tailspin that will take years to right.’
She writes of a love that ended before it had had the chance to live as a man she dated, ‘rode his motorcycle up and down a mountain at high speed until he drove himself into an unmarked construction hole at two in the morning.’
Davies is the first writer to describe pregnancy in way that I can fully identify with: ‘I am pregnant, the kind of pregnant where the baby is crowding your breath and it feels like you are sucking air through a snorkel, and there is no room in your thorax because a human being that is not you, yet is a little bit you, is taking up the room where your guts should be spreading out, relaxing, enjoying the weekend…’
And in the same essay, she writes about how, heavily pregnant, she realises that her marriage is a lie. That she and her husband don’t know each other at all. And how lonely that is.
She writes a heart-breaking account of trying to make a pie from scratch (over and over – it keeps going wrong) to impress her in-laws when she has a newborn in tow and can barely keep her eyes open from sleep-deprivation. This essay shows another aspect of Davies’s skill as a writer: that she writes as meaningfully about the failure to make a pie as she does about marriage and divorce and motherhood.
And there is truth in that too, because life, of course, is full of both the mundane and the extraordinary.
In a highly original essay, Davies describing divorce through the structure of a military field manual from, ‘2. MANAGING THE DECOMPOSITION OF CASUALTIES AFTER BATTLE’ to the humorous, ‘9. BREAKING THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT’ when she finds love again. Perhaps the most moving sentence in this mostly humorous essay, is a comment on how her divorce affected her children; how their small, physical bodies broke down from the stress and sadness at having their family torn apart: ‘The emotions of what we had been through were coming out of their orifices, like shrapnel working its way through skin.’
If you’re starting to think that all this is a bit too heavy-going, move on to her essay entitled, Men I Would Have Slept With. Pages of the famous and not famous and why she would have liked to slip between their sheets, from Jason Bateman to Anton Chekov to some she calls, ‘Doctor, First-Year Resident, Emergency Room, North Florida.’ Her reasons for wanting to sleep with these men are hilarious and compelling.
This is something else that I love about Dawn Davies. Her ability to place light and shade side by side in a way that makes you realise that one cannot live without the other.
Humour and tragedy are a co-dependent ecosystem; tears and laughter share a vital organ.
Perhaps most harrowingly, Davies writes about physical pain. I live in a state suffering from an opioid epidemic. The other day, on the radio, I heard a woman say that we were all just a breath away from becoming an addict. That an accident or illness could tip any of us over the edge into dependency on pain medication that could lead us to places that we never thought we would go.
Pain is indiscriminate in its victims. Dawn Davies talks about the cocktail of Ambien and Percocet which brought her so close to the edge that she had to ask her husband to flush away the pills. She writes of pain and drugs in this way: ‘We take drugs to avoid pain, we avoid pain because we are afraid of losing control, and we lose control trying not to feel pain. The pain eats the drugs, the drugs eats the anxiety, the anxiety eats the pain, and we are left with a roil of snakes shaped like a Celtic knot, each with another’s tail in its dirty little mouth. Everything has a price.’ A brilliant and truthful piece of writing, which captures this complicated and tragic dilemma perfectly.
Again, a little more humorously, though tragically too, Davies writes about the heartbreak of adopting a broken, damaged, feral dog that, in the end, she has to take away from her children for their safety. She writes beautifully when she talks of how she had to lie to them about taking Moose, the dog, away: ‘Children can hope for a long time without it burning their hands, far longer than adults can, which is what allows them to complete the act of growing up in a world where people lie, where people let you down all the time, a world where love isn’t always enough, a world where, sometimes, you have to give up on someone else in order to save yourself. Yet losing this kind of hope can break a child’s heart. This is why parents lie to their kids. Because they aren’t ready to see them lose hope. I understood this, which is why I decided I would like to my children about Moose.’
A few lines on she writes, she writes these stunning and haunting lines about a dream she has for where she would like to take this dog she has to destroy: ‘We would drive west, this sick dog and I, towards the Everglades, a magical part of Florida where the air felt new, and zummed with ozone and post-rain plant juices, mosses, and paisley-shaped snake-made eddies, swirling quietly in watered curves, the slicing of wind in the grass, where the shaded undersides of things took away your heat, put out your fire.’
Davies writes as beautifully about the natural world as she does about her physical body and her emotional landscape.
In the last few essays of the memoir, Dawn writes humorously about taking on the rather unexpected role of a soccer mom. My four year old daughter took part in her first soccer class – albeit a very informal one – last Saturday. My husband took her with our one year old strapped to his body in a sling. He said that he felt like a soccer mom.Another all-American experience we English folk will have to get used to.
Anyway, back to Davies. She is not a natural soccer mom. Like me, she would probably rather be reading a good book than standing on the side of a pitch yelling her lungs out as her offspring gets close to the ball. But that’s another funny thing about motherhood. Davies describes how it transforms us and pushes us into being creatures that we barely recognise.
Still on the subject of parenthood, she writes with painful and refreshing honesty about those times when you just can’t take it anymore and yet realise that, in this area of life, almost like no other, you have no choice. You have to stick it out. You can’t give them back. Or walk out. Well, you can, but that’s a whole other story. Interestingly, when I exchanged some messages with Dawn Davies, late one night when I should have been sleeping, I told her about my second novel, The Return of Norah Wells and that it was about a young mother who walks out on her family and comes back years later expecting to pick up where she left off. She said that she had a half written novel in a drawer about a mother who walks out. We’re clearly on the same wavelength. I also experienced a jolt of joy when she said that she’d read my debut, What Milo Saw, a few years ago. Not many Americans have.
So, Davies writes about this sense of entrapment that you can feel as a mother:
It’s as if you got drunk and joined the Marines on a lark and now you want out, only there is no way out without going to prison.
Balance this with the great love she has for her daughters, expressed in Night Swim and you will see that Davies likes to hold the paradoxes of life and experience up to light and to say: it’s both. Parenting is the most beautiful experience and the greatest gift and also, at times, hell.
Later, she writes about ordering a wedding dress on the cheap from china for her daughter which she ends up selling in a Hooters parking lot for fifty bucks after her daughter – thank goodness – decides not to marry at twenty but to stay at college and pursue her own, glittering ambitions.
There is the story of another dog who kills all the family pets and how it is somehow tragically and hilariously always her fault. Of all the trouble he caused. Of how her daughters always blamed her. And how they sobbed on the phone when she announced that he had died. And this leads her to think about the life that was and how much she misses it and how the silence, ‘made my head hurt.’ How even when something infuriatingly annoying and in the case of this dog, destructive, goes, something good is always lost too.
And, of course, the controversial and absolutely heart breaking penultimate essay, the title essay: Mothers of Sparta, in which Davies confronts the reality of having given birth to a child damaged both physically and emotionally and, worse than this, a child capable of and seemingly numb to hurting others. She uses the Sparta, the city in ancient Greece, in which, if a baby did not pass the test of the elders – if he was not perfect in mind, body, soul and spirit, if there was any sign that he would be anything less than a greater and noble warrior, he was throw into a pit called the Apothetae, where he would, ‘either die from the fall or from exposure, or be eaten by animals.’
In this essay, Davies asks one of the greatest moral questions of all time is raised: is it possible to love a sociopath. A question that the mother of every murderer or paedophile or rapist or school shooter has had to face. A question that reminds me of the premise behind the hugely successful novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. In that novel, the mother’s problem was that she didn’t love her child and felt that this might be responsible for his sociopathy, that somehow, right from the start, he had absorbed her lack of love and that it had made him evil. Davies’s essay is subtler than this. Of course she still loves her son: ‘I love my son with a weakness and fierceness at the same time.’ Weakness because mothers cannot help but love our children. Fierceness because, as mothers, we are always determined to find a way to save our children.
This review is longer than most.
That is because this is a very special book. A rare book. One in which the content is as beautifully crafted as the style; one which spans the whole gamut of human emotions; one that speaks right to our times – to what it means to be a mother, a wife, a woman, a daughter, a human being – and yet is universal, too. Hence Sparta.
I hope that I will see this book become a bestseller. It deserves at least that.
Dawn Davies speaking on the Megan Kelly TODAY show.