Author Talks: Leah Swann on Inventive explorations of motherhood in fiction

The eagle-featured mother in Angela Carter’s Bluebeard story “The Bloody Chamber” was an electrifying discovery as a student and lives on in me to this day. Back then, I’d read about oppressive mothers, unreliable mothers, fearsome mothers and loving mothers but never a fierce, swashbuckling mother like this one.

Early in the story we learn this woman had ‘outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates’, nursed a village through the plague and shot a man-eating tiger. We later see she’s in touch with her wild nature and ‘maternal telepathy’ – the phrase deftly sidestepping the more hackneyed ‘feminine intuition.’

Traditionally the poor bride who’s discovered her dead predecessors is saved from decapitation by her brothers. In Carter’s version it’s the mother who comes in at the gate on horseback, hair flying, horse rearing, rucked skirts revealing black lisle stockings, reins in one hand and revolver in the other, and behind her the ‘’breakers of the savage, indifferent sea, like the witnesses of a furious justice.”

This is no simple role reversal.

Carter’s mother combines the conventionally ‘feminine’ tenderness of nursing the sick with the ‘masculine’ bravery of fighting pirates. She’s passionate, having ‘gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love.’ There’s a bit of this woman in other famous literary creations – like Alcott’s Jo March and in the fiery spirit of Bronte’s Jane Eyre – but seeing her so organically embedded in the old fairytale form invites a rush of freedom and possibility.

This is partly I think because many women still absorb social scripts teaching us to be polite, to give the benefit of the doubt, to defer, to be compliant and easy going and not to make a fuss, even after decades of feminism. While we’re more conscious of these scripts we have a way to go, and literary representation continues to play a role. And in this character Carter touches on something deep about motherhood in a radiant, affirming light: the raging power of a woman whose child is in danger.

Carter claimed she wasn’t ‘retelling’ so much as extracting ‘the latent content from the traditional stories’ to begin new stories. She used fairy tales with ‘conscious radical intent,’ as Helen Simpson wrote in The Guardian. Carter wrote in a letter to a friend that fiction as a “different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help transform reality itself.”

When you type ‘mother saves child from’ into a search engine, you get stories of women in incredible feats of daring to save their children from crocodiles to coyotes. Anecdotally, many mothers report feeling this deep, writhing power, this urgent instinct to protect. In fiction, it’s there in Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife, where the woman on her own with four children in the outback stays up all night to kill the snake she knows is hiding. It’s there in the remade film Cape Fear, where Jessica Lange’s character Leigh offers herself in her daughter’s place, pleading with De Niro’s chilling Max Cady, “whatever you’ve got planned, do it with me, not with her.”

It’s one thing to protect your children from an immediate physical threat. But what if the danger is emotional and psychological? (This often becomes physical – a review of domestic violence-related murders in NSW found that in 99 per cent of cases, the abuser had used psychologically coercive controlling behaviour towards his victim.)

In the case of a plausible and charming abuser who’s also a husband and father, the mother becomes trapped in an odious position. She may deny or suppress the threat, to make light of it, or try to make everything work out because that seems the right thing to do. This is where ‘maternal telepathy’ runs into direct conflict with societal expectations – including her own – and creates an intolerable psychic atmosphere.

This was something I chose to explore in Sheerwater, where children go missing in the first scene. Their mother Ava is a physically competent and courageous character – but even she is paralysed with fear. Her consciousness fractures until the moment she reconnects to her courage:

“She’d been in shock but now the motherstream was stirring, receding like a vast tsunami drawback, the trough sucking down before the giant wave surges forward to fling aside buildings and whales and mountains.”

We recognise this aspect of motherhood both in the stories we tell our friends and through myths like that of Demeter and Persephone. She manifests potently in the Indian goddess Kali. That the Great Mother is among the earliest religious expressions shows the power of this force. As another mother in Sheerwater, Grace, remarks:

‘Some stuff is primal. It runs deeper than the rules. It’s what we have the rules for.’

In fiction we can plumb the stygian depths of the mother archetype and find new language for contemporary readers, or as Carter says, simultaneously describe and invent reality. Through writing and reading stories we come to a deeper understanding of the two-way nature of this foundational relationship. As poet Alison Croggon puts it in the poem Bearing:

‘…and lined and unlined hands are still
in movement and are in division one:
and who has given birth? and who is born?’


Ava and her two young sons, Max and Teddy, are driving to their new home in Sheerwater, hopeful of making a fresh start in a new town, although Ava can’t help but keep looking over her shoulder. They’re almost at their destination when they witness a shocking accident – a light plane crashing in the field next to the road. Ava stops to help, but when she gets back to the car, she realises that somehow, among the smoke, fire and confusion, her sons have gone missing …

From a substantial new Australian writing talent, Sheerwater is tense, emotional, unforgettable. Perfect for readers of Mark Brandi’s Wimmera and Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World, this is a beautifully written, propulsive, gut-wrenching and unputdownable novel – an aching, powerful story of the heroic acts we are capable of in the name of love.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Released March 2020

About the Author:

Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.

5 thoughts on “Author Talks: Leah Swann on Inventive explorations of motherhood in fiction

  1. Pingback: Author Talks: Leah Swann on Inventive explorations of motherhood in fiction — Theresa Smith Writes – Snow Queen SVT

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