The Mothers by Brit Bennett

It was such a treat to return to the revelatory writing of Brit Bennett with this one – I read The Vanishing Half first but this one was earlier, her debut. The two novels definitely feel like they come from the same hand; The Vanishing Half spanned generations, while this one covers only two decades or so, but still feels expansive, because of the narrative voice (more on that in a minute), and both zoom out to accommodate cross-country travels, so that their scope is large. Both deal with a defined but largish cast of characters and decidedly big issues. In under 300 pages, The Mothers gives the impression of being about capital-L Life in a way that is powerful and well done.

The narrative perspective in this novel is unusual. For good chunks of the text it feels like close third-person, meaning the pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘he’ but the reader has intimate knowledge of the thoughts and feelings of the character highlighted at any given time. But occasionally we get a first person plural perspective: the pronoun ‘we,’ which is rare in fiction. Much is said of the rarity of the second person (‘you’), but I think we see more of that than we do ‘we.’ It made me think immediately of “Appalachian Swan Song,” the opening short story in Jon Corcoran’s collection The Rope Swing, which I love and have taught twice now. In Corcoran’s story, the ‘we’ is not quite defined; my students and I discuss it and feel that it’s the townspeople, or the town itself, the community, in some way. It’s a story very much about place, and the town or some representative(s) of it get to speak. In The Mothers, the ‘we’ gets better defined, although not right at first. ‘We’ are the Mothers of the Upper Room Chapel in Oceanside, California, where the story is most solidly set. These Mothers are the church’s elder women, and they offer nosiness, wisdom, and a long view; they are a Greek chorus of sorts. I really appreciate the effect.

I love the different ways the title works, too. These Mothers who tell the story are an obvious reference point; the book is about motherhood in many other ways, too. Our chief protagonist is Nadia Turner, who we meet at 17, when her mother has just killed herself in rather spectacular fashion (gunshot to the head). She has gotten pregnant with the help of the pastor’s son Luke (that’s the pastor of Upper Room), and had an abortion just before going off to college in Michigan. The couple’s relationship, such as it was, did not survive the abortion, but each remains caught up in the other without knowing it’s mutual. That same fateful summer, Nadia becomes friends with a girl her age named Aubrey. Aubrey is also motherless but by different means: she lives with her older sister, because their mother was guilty of some severe mistreatment (trying to avoid spoilers here). The girls understand early that motherlessness is part of their bond. “Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt they didn’t know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.” Nadia’s choice not to become a mother at 17 will affect her life, and Luke’s, and Aubrey’s, for years to come. Nadia wonders about her mother’s choice to keep her own accidental teenaged pregnancy. Imagining a world in which she, Nadia, hadn’t been born, and her mother hadn’t turned to suicide: “Where her life ended, her mother’s life began.” You see the layers of significance around “the mothers.”

The novel mostly follows Nadia, but we get to spend time with Aubrey and Luke as well. The community that surrounds them, in Oceanside and at Upper Room, are of secondary importance. It’s a story about family ties and secrets (“After a secret’s been told, everyone becomes a prophet”) and obviously motherhood but much more besides. Race is a background issue – these characters are Black but that’s a simple fact and not The Point of the book. The quietly reset default in that is one I value and I’m trying to mix a little more of it into my reading.

This is a writer I’ll follow anywhere. I hope there are many more to come.


Rating: 9 crab bites.

2 Responses

  1. I heard about this one on a podcast recently and it really intrigued me – glad to hear it was such a success!

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