2009, 296 p. & notes
The front cover of this book is quite beautiful, and I found myself closing the book several times just to look at it. A young girl, with luminous grey eyes looks over her shoulder with a half-smile that is both innocent and yet somehow knowing. She reminds me of a close friend in long-past days. I prefer this close-up crop to the full picture shown on the back cover, where we now see that the young girl is sitting with a rather garish copy of ‘Alice and the White Rabbit’ in her lap. The young girl was Anne Summers’ mother Tuni as a child, and this book is about Summers’ research about the painting that was bequeathed to her after her mother’s death. But it’s about much more than that.
There are several stories plaited together with the picture of Tuni (or ‘Alice’ as the painting was known) at the heart of them. There is the painter, Constance Stokes whose long career intersected with other women artists- Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston- and with other more well known (notorious, rather) artistic circles at Heide or Montsalvat. However, she was never part of this scene: she had married into a ‘respectable’ middle class family and was enmeshed in family life; she was based in Toorak and South Yarra rather than on the banks of the Yarra, and her reputation has waxed and waned over time.
A second strand is based around the Russian emigre socialite Lydia Mortill who owned the painting by Constance Stokes. As Summers discovers, Lydia’s own background was murky, but not as murky as that of her much-older husband William who is a complex mixture of callous avarice in relation to his own relations from an earlier marriage yet selfless and committed to Lydia’s family back in Latvia. The painting hung at Tay Creggan, the large Queen Anne-style mansion still standing at Hawthorn (now part of Strathcona Baptist school), as did a second now-missing painting of Tuni that Summers sought. On the eve of World War II Tay Creggan and its contents were hastily sold off as William and Lydia travelled quickly to Europe, at a time when others were fleeing.
Finally, there is the relationship between Anne Summers herself and her mother, which, always difficult, was almost shredded by Summers’ publication of her memoir Ducks on the Pond. We learn this early in the book, and it is only at the end of the book that she turns to this more intimate, emotionally-freighted search.
It seems that I have read a number of historian-as-detective books recently, and I must admit that I am becoming a little jaded by it. At one stage Summers trails off into the labyrinthine delta of family history, and I was pleased that she did not spend much longer there. I much preferred her ‘big sweep’ commentary on women artists, motherhood, the post-war art scene and its relationship with Melbourne ‘society’ and Latvian history. The book is imbued with Melbourne-based detail, which as a Melburnian myself I very much enjoyed. It is clearly structured, but it’s a complex structure as well that coils around itself, looping on synchronicities and coincidences, while moving forward as well.
The Lost Mother succeeds at both an intellectual and an emotional level. It is the story of a search and discovery but, tellingly, its final chapter is titled ‘loss’.
My rating: 8.5 /10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: Australian Literature Online bookgroup. I’ve also reviewed this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge