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Milk, On Motherhood and Madness by Alice Kinsella: A powerful, beautifully rendered prose debut

A compelling account of the author’s initiation into motherhood after the birth of her first child

Milk: On Motherhood and Madness
Author: Alice Kinsella
ISBN-13: 978-1529097948
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

At the very end of this beautiful, impassioned, moving, and compelling book is an expression of love from mother to child that is embedded in the acknowledgments after the narrative proper is complete.

Writing to her now-infant son, Alice Kinsella writes: “Thank you for the life you’ve given me.”

It is a statement reversing the conventional wisdom that the mother gives life to the child, but its paradox will be immediately grasped by those who have been through the experience of becoming a parent, and will also become apparent to anyone after reading this book.

Moreover, it expresses in its simplicity and defiance of expected logic a neat summary of the work of Kinsella’s narrative: how her child gave hope and happiness and so much more to one who traversed adversity in life, in childbirth, and after.

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It is an apt and pithy conclusion to this stunning book.

“Book” because, while it will be categorised as memoir, a “book” is how Kinsella, in an author’s note, likes to navigate its definition, leaving it to be open to all the potentials of the language and representation of creative nonfiction, straddling fictional as well as life-writing tropes which allows it to become all the more powerful by placing it in its own genre-pushing hinterland.

It is poetry in prose then, as is fitting for this well-established poet, or, as Kinsella herself likes to say to the reader, it is to be accepted for what it is, the “at-times chaotic musings of a woman trying to write her way out of madness.”

And what writing!

Alice Kinsella is a writer from Dublin now living in the west of Ireland, whose poetry works include the highly acclaimed publications Sexy Fruit and Flower Press. Having studied at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Galway (then NUI Galway), she has also been an editor of several anthologies, has received an Arts Council Next Generation Award, been published in numerous prestigious journals, has been a writer in residence and facilitator of creative writing in numerous settings, and has received a John Hewitt Bursary.

Milk is her debut in prose.

All the foregoing experience, representing as it does a life in words, poetic words, producing and teaching them and considering and writing them, transmits itself into the lush, vibrant (and yes, undeniably poetic) language she expresses herself with throughout this fine book.

Milk is a compelling and moving account of her initiation into, and life experiencing, motherhood following the birth of her first child in her mid-20s, and how an arduous delivery-room experience leads her traumatised; additionally, afterwards she recognises the return of long-familiar mental distress, now in the form of post-natal depression, and this too must be contended with.

Interspersed with the personal narrative recounting Kinsella’s own story of birth and motherhood are passages of cultural and historical commentary and analysis, topics that illuminate and reflect upon these experiences, and that cover a vast array of subjects.

There are digressions into such areas as the myths of Egypt and Greece, marriage, Magdalene Laundries, superstition and witchcraft, photography, cilliní, smartphones, Marian traditions, euthanasia, the history of hysteria, mermaids, the nature of PTSD, traditional maternal customs in Ireland, social media, Catholicism, vegetarianism, sexuality, the nature of ethics, the nature of nature, and further thinking around the culture of motherhood, attitudes to breastfeeding, and the treatment of women historically and today.

If at times these historical-cultural commentary sections come across as less necessary to the book than the personal story narrated, it will be because of their relative familiarity; nonetheless, these remain compelling subjects in any account of motherhood. Moreover, the two strands of the book frequently overlap as the narrative proceeds, and when they intersect they do so to great effect.

And such a lens! Sharp, brutal, unrelenting, vivid, capturing moments and emotions in the experience and psychology of motherhood, its demands, exhaustion, evocation of mortality, fears, sources of guilt, as well as its joys

There is further relevance to the wider narratives threading the book. Not only do they represent a powerful polemic of simmering anger at the way women have been treated throughout history, particularly in Ireland; also, and more pertinently, Kinsella increasingly and intensely is viewing the world “through the lens of a mother”.

And such a lens! Sharp, brutal, unrelenting, vivid, capturing moments and emotions in the experience and psychology of motherhood, its demands, exhaustion, evocation of mortality, fears, sources of guilt, as well as its joys.

Throughout, too, the life of a writer is explored, that work of writing and the challenges the new role of motherhood brings to that vocation.

“I’m afraid no one will listen to me anymore,” Kinsella writes at one point, worrying over the issue that her identity as a woman will be erased by that of the cultural trope of Mother.

“Please believe I was here,” she continues, “Please believe I mattered.”

On the strength of this powerful, visceral, memorable, touching, and above all beautifully rendered prose debut, there is little doubt Kinsella’s compelling voice will be listened to: here is a writer who matters.