Straight talk down the female line;Books

27th March 1998 at 00:00
MOTHERLAND. Interviews with Mothers and Daughters. By Ann McFerran. Virago pound;9.99.

Few women of my generation and Ann McFerran's, aged anything between 35 and 55, will not share at least some of the feelings expressed in the introduction to this book. Few would have exposed them quite so fearlessly in quite so short an essay as Ann McFerran does. Her own feelings, her ambivalences, her desire to compile this book at all, make for fascinating reading.

Motherland is a collection of discussions with women about their relationships with their mothers andor their daughters. It is clear from these interviews, most of them conducted in pairs (the idea came from the Sunday Times's "Relative Values" column, to which Ann McFerran contributes), that the mother-daughter relationship fascinates her.

McFerran's brief introduction, in which she writes of her own feelings about her relationships with her mother and daughter, is by far the best section of the book. In it, she looks back on the vast changes in women's lives that have taken place over the past 50 years, changes that have so dramatically altered the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, primarily by changing the time available to nurture it. Here, too, she reflects on her decision, despite all the difficulties, not to give up work while raising her daughter. Because she worked at home, she was often an unbearable person to live with when meeting deadlines or scrabbling for a word or phrase.

But that fearlessness, that clarity about ambivalence, fades away when we reach the interviewees themselves. Though McFerran comments in her introduction about "sharing a view" with one or other of her interviewees, the interviews themselves are rather stilted, and far less revealing than McFerran is when talking about herself. One is left wondering why.

The interviewees are fascinating women - actress Sheila Hancock and her daughter Melanie Thaw, for instance, or Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and her mother and daughter. McFerran's descriptions of her subjects are warm and observant. The diminutive Anita Roddick exudes energy; actress Meera Syal's mother is immensely dignified in being prepared to be interviewed on the day of her own mother's death. But the interviews themselves are wooden, as if McFerran did not want to edit them sufficiently, or as if the women themselves could not be totally honest with their mother or daughter present.

Nevertheless, there are some gems. One is Meera Syal talking of the tactile nature of her early years, and describing her maternal grandfather's love of his daughters. Another is PRguru Lynne Franks's daughter saying her mother can be very gullible, and that people take advantage of her. There are many more.

But the whole is unsatisfactory, apart from the excellent introduction, simply because the reader gets insufficient feel for the relationships between the women being interviewed, and too strong a sense of what they said, verbatim, without McFerran's closely observed impressions. Nevertheless, in order to learn more about Meera Syal, Sheila Hancock, Lynne Franks, author Erica Jong and others, it is worth a read. But it could have been very much more illuminating about motherhood, daughterhood, and the nature of female family life.

Julia Neuberger is chief executive of the King's Fund

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