All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett – Review
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe
There are some books that you read, knowing that they will stay with you for a long time. Victoria Bennett’s memoir, All My Wild Mothers is one of those books.
Bennett, founder of the Wild Woman Web project, allowed the work to develop over a decade; the same amount of time it took to transform a desolate pile of building rubble into a beautiful apothecary garden, each plant carefully set in place for a specific purpose, the metamorphosis of her external environment echoing the emotional transitions through a number of life challenges, beginning with the death of Bennett’s sister in a canoe accident, and culminating in the palliative care of her mother.
All My Wild Mothers is not always an easy read. I confess that there were days when I had snotty, heaving tears blurring my vision and soaking the pages, and days when I had to lay the book aside to allow the full implications of the words to be assimilated, but, neither is it a dark, tragic tale. Joy and light constantly seep through the sadness, and the authentic trust of a little boy who understands how to build fortresses of hope, has an instinct for kindness and asks such endearing questions as, “Do bees sneeze?” and “Do minnows run out of puff” has the reader smiling.
Just as the layers of nutrients and hard digging make the garden productive, this is a story of family and support systems that seam through the generations, of parental love that reverberates without always necessarily understanding the choices made and reasons given, and Bennett writes with such grace and eloquence in honour of those who have been a part of her heritage. Pieces of broken crockery from another era provide the drainage for the flowers that grow today.
A book that allows its structure to be formed around the breaking of a seed and uses traditional herbal medicine and folklore to signpost the sacred pilgrimage through the grief of many losses, to setting forth a mandate for the future earth, this is a piece that is astute and cleverly crafted. From the drawing of a tight, closed kernel on its opening pages, to the sharp outline of a cotyledon that reaches upward to the light that appears as the book closes, Bennett puts not one Wellington-booted foot out of place in the elegance and belief of this writing.
Bennett is an award-winning nature writer and poet. She has also been the instigator behind some interesting artistic endeavours; most notably, the 2012 Naked Muse calendar which brought together fourteen female poets and thirteen female photographers with fourteen male poets who bravely agreed to be their naked muses, in order to raise money for The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Writing a memoir is strikingly different. It is personal and takes skill to do well. Bennett has shown she more than has that skill, balancing the hard-hitting, traumatic episodes with softer, sweeter happenings in a way that makes them hit with force, but not harming the reader. Like careful companion planting to keep away the things that would destroy the crop. Like feeding crushed pills by hiding them in a crème brulée.
Daisy for resilience. Dandelion for strength against adversity. Red Campion to ward off loneliness. Thistle to lift melancholy. Borage to bring hope in difficult times. Healing and hope are ever present in nature’s medicine chest.
I can’t promise that this will always be a relaxing read, but All My Wild Mothers is one of the most achingly precious books that I have encountered in recent times, and I can thoroughly recommend it.
‘All My Wild Mothers’ by Victoria Bennett will be published by Hachette, £16.99 hardback