Book Review: Martha
Capturing the ebbs and flows of her daughter’s adolescence, Sian Davey takes moments of her step-daughter’s life in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of her. In the process of making Martha, Davey is also gaining a forgiving knowledge of herself.
Feeling that her mother was very absent while growing up, Davey relates to her step-daughter. Both felt neglected by their mother figure; both felt alone in their experiences; and both found a friend in their sorrows. Through her creation Martha, Davey develops a more intimate relationship with her step-daughter. At first, Davey is only able to capture moments within the family dynamic, Martha rarely looking at the camera. As Martha grows, Davey is able to intrude on the more visceral moments of her life, letting Davey accompany her while she is partying or smoking with her friends. But now, as time progresses, the photos all have her staring deep into the camera or just past it, looking to Davey.
As their relationship blossoms, so does Martha’s confidence, but the lack of her birth mother still lingers.
Davey’s step-daughter lets her mother photograph her in a way most modern teens wouldn’t dare. Martha shows the intimate parts of her life as Davey peers into them. Most of the photos do not depict her daughter smiling, but rather looking alone with glassy eyes staring off into the distance. Over three years, Davey captures the most important and most forgotten moments. From the ages 16 to19 Davey watches her daughter evolve from a child into a woman.
Martha stares into the camera, surrounded by other teenagers, on a warm morning. Everyone around her is in the moment; the girl in the foreground pushes a slice of pizza between her lips, while a girl behind her holds a cigarette up to the boy’s mouth in front of her. Despite all the movement, Martha stands still. Her unsmiling eyes barrel into the lens, revealing the overwhelming sense of loneliness within the crowd of friends. Loneliness she and Davey share.
The only person in focus, Martha marks the center of the photograph, the center of the book, and the center of Davey’s understanding of her own past. Davey discovers solace in Martha’s day-to-day life, she finds a kindred spirit and a depraved soul in Martha. For Davey, it is not reliving her past, but watching her daughter create her future. While Davey gets to go out and experience life with Martha, it is neither as a friend nor a mother, but as a bystander.
We watch as Martha learns to process her role in life, but also in her family. Akin to Davey, Martha’s mother was absent, and though Davey attempts to nurture the wounds as a step-mother, Davey finds hers mending as well. We are able to watch Martha navigate the territories of intimacy, love, and belonging, interwoven with the tensions of adulthood. Martha discovers her own way of developing into a young woman for herself, but she also becomes a light of hope for Davey.