Monday, May 3, 2010

Review Monday: Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond

Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond
by Jane Satterfield
Published in 2009
Demeter Press
ISBN: 1550145037

Reviewed by Shelle Stormoe

American culture is awash in stories about motherhood, especially stories about the particularly female conflict between work and family. In that sense, Satterfield's book covers familiar territory. Born in England but raised in the U.S., Satterfield goes back to Britain as a tag-a-long on her husband's Fulbright teaching fellowship. She plans to finish a poetry manuscript and teach at a local university, but instead finds herself pregnant for the first time. Often left alone in a country that is at the same moment "home" and entirely foreign, she must confront the realities of motherhood while she fights her fears of becoming consumed by her child's needs.

In the early essays in this volume, Satterfield explores this idea through meditations on the oppressive practicalities of the British healthcare system that make her feel as if she is her body, and erodes her American "sense of entitlement." She examines her own mother's nostalgic longing for England, and the lack of choices her mother faced as she grew into adulthood. Satterfield fears she will be forced into a similar restrictions, which plays out in life. A job offer is rescinded; her husband's incessant work effectively exempts him from domestic duties, which fall to Satterfield.

This lack of control over her own physicality and destiny, prompts her to meditate on the books and music that helped define her youth and her expectations for adulthood. She adopts a tone that is both scholarly and intimate while she examines the work of the Bronte's, the 90s British band Oasis, George Harrison, and a long list other poets and novelists. Over and over, she repeats the point that these old inspirations hold up poorly once she's crossed the threshold between hopeful young poet and married mother.

In memoir, it can be dangerously easy to force a life that is, as most lives are, messy and non-linear into a sentimental and familiar plot structure. Satterfield avoids this pitfall by refusing to wrap up her year in England into a tidy narrative. She arranges her essays into an order more driven by theme than by chronology. The pieces jump from England, to later experiences in the U.S., and then back to England. She shifts forward in time, so that the reader knows her marriage will end in divorce, and that she will marry again, before she tells the story about her daughter's birth and first husband's indifference. She interrupts her series of longer essays with a spare, poetic examination of starvation, a metaphor for her insatiable appetite while pregnant and the painful way her literary ambitions begin to starve in the face of motherhood.

Reading this collection is a bit like hearing all the stories of a new friend's life, but in a random order punctuated by days and weeks of silence, so that every story must begin again, must cover much of the same ground the previous story covered. This structure keeps the book from seeming too much like other motherhood memoirs, and more accurately reflects the reality of her experience.

Shelle Stormoe will begin work as a Visiting Lecturer of  Writing at the University of Central Arkansas this fall. Her essays and interviews have appeared in River Teeth, Divide, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Arkansas Times and elsewhere.  An essay is forthcoming from Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal.  She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.  

1 comment:

Web Site Admin said...

Hi -
Great review. Can we have permission to post a link to the review on our website


Sharon Marks
Demeter Press