Maximum Shelf: Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 26, 2013.


mother mother
Mother, Mother opens on a quiet Saturday morning in a small town north of New York City. A young boy wakes up with his mother standing over him, waiting to start their day. He is a little odd–we soon learn he’s been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and epilepsy–and his mother seems to be wound a little tight, but she’s also concerned and loving. Next, the perspective shifts to that of his older sister, a rebellious teen who has just been placed in a local mental hospital. The father is cheating. The eldest daughter ran away with a boyfriend several years ago.

These are the perceptions presented in the first few pages of Koren Zailckas’s startling debut novel. Do you believe everything you’ve just read?

As the story of the Hurst family unfolds, the reader will learn to question every “fact” exhibited. The youngest child, Will, and the middle daughter, Violet, continue to trade off the first-person relating of their family drama. One is on the autism spectrum and the other is drug-addled; thus the reader has to parse not one unreliable narrator but two. Will both loves his mother and fears her, and is constantly struggling to determine what exactly it is she wants so that he can please her. He is home-schooled, because of the Asperger’s: Is this the cause or the effect of their unusually close relationship? Josephine, the titular mother, starts off coldly Stepford-like and quickly takes a turn toward chilling. Violet, who has been observing Sallekhana (a form of Jainist ritual starvation), recently took psychedelic morning glory seeds and came home to her family out of her mind, hallucinating and violent. Now Josephine is adamantly opposed to Violet coming home from the hospital, ostensibly because of the threat she poses to her little brother. The absent eldest daughter, Rose, remains ghostlike and disembodied for most of the book. Her past is enigmatic and her current location unknown–but unexpectedly, she writes to Violet in the hospital, after years of silence. And while their father, Douglas, is physically present, he has problems of his own that make him self-centered and ineffectual.

Much of Mother, Mother‘s mystery revolves around the night when Violet, in a haze induced by near starvation coupled with the psychedelic seeds, brandished a knife at her family, harming Will. A drunken Douglas drove her to the psych ward. But as it turns out, neither Will nor Violet has a clear memory of what happened on that night. Then Child Protective Services enters the scene, in the form of a case worker surprisingly sympathetic to Violet. This engages Josephine’s protective instincts, and the reader must struggle alongside CPS to discern the truth about where–or from whom–Will suffered his injuries. From the start, the reader is kept off-balance by Will and Violet’s constantly shifting, conflicting, inconsistent narratives. Josephine’s contributions, which come in dialogue form through Will or Violet’s observations, only serve to muddy the waters. From the start, the reader senses that something is amiss, but will have to puzzle for a time over which of these troubled characters to trust.

As the action unfolds, Violet remains institutionalized, but the details of the night in question begin to reveal themselves. Will and Violet both begin to regain their memories, but they continue to interpret those recollections in very different ways. Even as the source of the true evil begins to become clear, the reader is kept guessing as to everyone’s final fates until the closing pages, and the surprises keep coming until the very end.

Koren Zailckas is the bestselling author of two memoirs, Smashed and Fury. Her first attempt at fiction will not disappoint her fans, as she continues to exhibit a nuanced understanding of psychological drama, combined with a wry tone that brings surprising humor to such an unnerving story. Zailckas reveals and conceals fact and rumor in this complex tale with deliciously deceitful cleverness: readers should beware the seemingly straightforward narrative as told by Will and Violet. Take, for example, Will’s placement on the autistic spectrum. In some ways, it is very apt: his obsession with obscure, little-known vocabulary words will of course charm the booklover; but on the other hand, he is awfully good at reading emotions.

Mother, Mother is unsettling, even frightening, and perhaps what makes its atmosphere so successfully compelling is that it is so very domestic and ordinary. The Hursts not only appear outwardly normal, they may be our role models–the perfect family next door. What Zailckas has accomplished is most disturbing because it is so close to home.


Rating: 7 not-so-loving looks.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Zailckas!

4 Responses

  1. […] Monday’s review of Mother, Mother, then, here’s the lovely Koren […]

  2. I read this in Shelf Awareness Maximum a bit ago and it prompted me to ask for a galley. I am so glad I did. Your review and interview were such a bold taste of the world in the book and the book is deliciously twisted. Thanks for intriguing me into reading a great book.

  3. […] she thought she knew, without resetting the rules of the world of your own creation; just look at Koren Zailckas. In other words, Viner had already established this as a world of realism, with fully developed […]

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