Mother Country by Jacinda Townsend

To crib a disclosure I found over at Tor.com: “The author is a friend, but if I didn’t like her book, I just wouldn’t review it here.”


And what, after all, to make of a choice?

Shannon is an American woman traveling, for the second time, in Morocco with her husband Vladimir, “a man she felt she could never know from Adam.” They have their troubles: Shannon suffers severe chronic pain following a serious car wreck; she is hiding substantial student and medical debt from her husband, who is wealthy, distant and not terribly likeable. They are unable to get pregnant (for layers of reasons and with layers of results, including Shannon’s increasing baby fever). Shannon is privileged but more or less miserable, between the pain, her marijuana habit (hidden from Vladimir), the traumas of her own upbringing, and her desire for what she can’t have. She feels a bit lost, “but it was a nice lost, like being found was just around the corner in some dusty recess of the medina.”

Souria is a teenager from Mauritania, where she has been beset: her mother dead, she is kidnapped and enslaved; escapes, is enslaved again, escapes again; arrives in Marrakech friendless and pregnant, where the abuses persist until she escapes to begin a hard, simple life under her own power in Essaouira, “that frat boy of Moroccan cities” on the coast. She names her daughter Yumni, “good fortune. Success in this life,” and the child is happy and deeply loved.

To Shannon’s American eyes, however, she appears dirty and free-ranging on the sidewalks outside the shop where Souria works. And so the older, richer woman just… takes her. Vladimir’s money and their American passports transform Yumni to an American adopted daughter. The two women look remarkably alike; the child looks like her adoptive mother, such that the other parents in Louisville assume she is Shannon’s own.

I love this novel for its use of repeated lines and concepts, and questions about the nature of choice. The two threads, which eventually meet, are mostly told in the close third person perspectives of Shannon and Souria, although we get brief glimpses of Vladimir and of Yumni (later Mardi). These two main characters are well developed, but I judge them not equally sympathetic: Shannon’s life has certainly been difficult, but I judge her more harshly in the end than I do Souria, who’s had fewer options. There are parallels, though, and both women have the complexity of being neither martyr nor villain. The stories are well told, and the plot is heartbreaking, but the novel is character driven in the end, as well as being about those choices we are cued to in the first line. Secondary characters are delightfully drawn as well, which I always appreciate.

The title teases us, at first, to think about the Black American couple traveling to Africa, but it’s also a hint to themes about motherhood. The child at center winds up with something like two mothers, although a little short on fathers – her biological father is more or less a rapist and more or less unknown, and Vladimir is neither cut out for nor in love with the role. Shannon’s mother is not a benevolent force, and the loss of Souria’s mother when she was young is directly linked to what happens to her from then on. The country of Morocco is important as setting, as cultural backdrop, as a place where Shannon and Vladimir can take what they want. (I also happen to know it’s an important place in the life of the novelist, which maybe doesn’t figure in the novel, except that this writer knows her subject well.)

There are capital-I Issues here, like trafficking, colorism, American privilege, and meditations on motherhood. I don’t find the ethical question to be terribly puzzling – I think kidnapping is wrong whether it’s Souria or her daughter being taken. White Americans adopting African babies creates a problematic picture that’s too easy; I appreciate Shannon’s more complicated role as Black American, and with her own traumas and challenges. The male-female relationships are both beautifully drawn and upsetting in how universally problematic they are.

Jacinda Townsend has perhaps topped her lovely, musical Saint Monkey. This is a beauty, and timely, wise, and real.


Rating: 8 bears.

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