Bad Art Mother

Edwina Preston

Bad Art Mother
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Bad Art Mother

Edwina Preston

Good mothers are expected to be selfless. Artists are seen as selfish. So what does this mean for a mother with artistic ambitions?

Enter: frustrated poet Veda Gray, who is offered a Faustian bargain when a wealthy childless couple, the Parishes, invite her to exchange her young son Owen for time to write.

Veda’s story unfolds as an adult Owen reflects on his boyhood in the Melbourne suburbs, and in the vibrant bohemian inner-city art world where his restaurateur father was a king. Meanwhile, the talented women in his orbit - Veda, Mrs Parish, wife of an influential poet, muralist and restaurant worker Rosa - push against gender expectations to be recognised as legitimate artists, by their intimates and the wider world. And almost-aunt Ornella, who declares herself without an artistic bone in her body, is perhaps the closest thing Owen has to a traditional mother. As Owen is encouraged to ‘be a man’, he loses something of himself, too.

Blending wit and pathos, love and fury, ambition and loss, this is an extraordinary novel of love and art, set in the Melbourne milieu of Georges and Mirka Mora, Joy Hester, and John and Sunday Reed.

Review

Veda Gray is a poet. She is also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and each of these other roles chafe against her desire to free herself in her writing. As a result, she wrestles with the relentless, inevitable guilt of feeling like she isn’t ‘good enough’ at performing all these expected roles.

A portrait of vibrant 1960s Melbourne, with its emerging culture of art, food and literature, Bad Art Mother is a ‘love song to [the city] set during the cultural transitions of the post war period’ says author Edwina Preston. It is this and so much more besides. Sublimely written, Bad Art Mother is a dual narrative told from two perspectives: Veda and her son Owen. It immerses the reader so completely, one might feel as though they have stepped into a time machine. Between Veda’s letters to her sister and Owen’s recounting of events, the reader is held voyeuristically spellbound, wondering whose is the truer version of the story. Preston offers a vivid, fierce and intelligent commentary on the lives of creative women in a rapidly shifting cultural landscape still rigidly controlled by ‘the boys club’.

It is impossible to say all I wish to say about this remarkable book in the space of 300 words. So, I will leave you to think on a question our narrator Owen asks himself, early on in his childhood, fascinated and fearful of his beautiful, mercurial mother: ‘How could I know what to be, with a mother like that?’ The question that haunted me while reading however, is how does an intelligent, creative woman know what to be in a world that expects her to be so many things, but never herself?


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