Brit Bennett The Mothers (Riverhead, 2016)
By Rachel Sykes
For Brit Bennett’s debut, the novel’s title serves more as a question. Set in a small southern Californian black community, The Mothers is populated with many different and often conflicting models of motherhood; models that, as Bennett points out, starkly contrast with an abstract ideal. The title for instance refers to a community of conservative Christian “Mothers” who watch over the novel and narrate brief parts of the story. A Greek chorus of elderly female busybodies, Bennett’s narrative begins and ends in the Mothers’ communal “We”, an otherworldly voice that acknowledges its propensity to gossip, judge, and condemn without apology. Still, the Mothers’ speech is as seductive as it is accusing, weighing the tones and textures of the neighbourhood’s dirty laundry in sensitive and lyrical prose that enigmatically suggests on the novel’s opening page that “[a]ll good secrets have a taste before you tell them.”
Alternating then between this mysterious hive-mind and a more objective third-person narrator, The Mothers is a realist novel with surrealist undertones. Most of the text focusses, not on the Mothers themselves, but on the “unripe” secrets of three neighbourhood teenagers as they struggle to come of age in a small town: Nadia Turner, her sometime boyfriend, Luke Sheppard, and her unlikely best friend, Aubrey Evans. It is these three characters for whom Bennett invokes the novel’s title most creatively, describing the many ways in which they disappoint their community Mothers, challenge their own parents, and play out the roles of both mother and mothered as they enter young adulthood.
The Mothers is Bennett’s first novel. Until now, she was best known for a series of essays on race, segregation, and white terrorism published in Jezebel, The Paris Review, and the New York Times respectively. As is common for a first-time novelist, reviewers have widely noted that the 26-year-old author is a native of the same stretch of southern Californian where the novel is set. In an interview with the New York Times, Bennett also claims she was seventeen when she first started writing the story, the same age as her protagonist, Nadia, is when the novel begins.
Yet the novel is far from autobiographical. Drafted and redrafted “with a blowtorch” throughout her latter teens and early twenties, The Mothers quickly establishes Nadia as a smart and ambitious girl who gets pregnant and simply decides to have an abortion. It’s not the action here but the swiftness of her decision that feels notable. Nadia meets Luke on page 2, is pregnant by page 11, attends the abortion clinic on page 14, and stands abandoned on its steps by the end of the first chapter. Soon, she goes on to college and though her decision to have an abortion undoubtedly follows her, she never regrets it, reflecting on the incident more as a road not travelled then as a mistake or trauma.
In an interview about The Mothers, Bennett marvelled at the lack of abortion led narratives in contemporary fiction, concluding that they are in many ways “anti-narrative”. Pregnancy, she notes by comparison, “generates narrative: things are changing, there’s an obvious progression. But when you start a book with an abortion, you’re starting with something that’s ended, which causes certain problems in terms of the plot.”
Indeed, Nadia’s abortion would change our perception of the novel’s title were it not for the fact that Bennett is clearly more interested in absence than presence. As teenagers, Nadia and Aubrey are drawn to each other because they are motherless; Nadia’s mother commits suicide six months before the novel begins and Aubrey leaves her home when her abusive stepfather makes living there impossible. The novel is therefore more concerned with how girls “come of age” without a parent than in Nadia’s aborted pregnancy, placing Nadia’s anger at her bereavement in stark contrast to Aubrey’s timidity and fear of her life at home. In this, the two girls represent not only opposite reactions to traumatic experience but also the more mundane intensities of adolescence and even grief itself, which, as the narrator points out, feels ever ready to “sling-shot” the mourner “backward into its grip.”
That feeling – of “one step forward, two steps back” – permeates The Mothers. As Nadia and Aubrey enter their twenties and grow apart, they continue to suppress the traumatic experiences associated with their biological families, making bad or at best unhealthy decisions in the name of adulthood. There are plenty of plot spoilers to avoid here so in lieu of detail I’ll say that it is in these moments of slippage, of the typical teen-into-twenties uncertainty, that Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke circle back to each other and to their community. Here, they live lives of notable mundanity, the representation of which, as Bennett writes elsewhere, is so often at odds with popular perceptions of black experience; caring for relatives and making coffee “half regular, half decaf, the way he liked it.”
Yet as the looming hive mind of the Mothers more than demonstrates, community often comes at a price: privacy. “Was that all it took”, the narrator reflects, “kneeling at the altar and asking for help? Or did you have to invite everyone in on your private sorrow to be saved?” Ultimately, the Mothers are one of the most interesting aspects of Bennett’s storytelling because of the weight their knowledge accumulates. They tell the readers, for instance, about Nadia’s abortion, just like they divulge many more community secrets, sometimes whispering their admissions in parentheses. Their eminent knowledge also guides the story. When they claim, “We forgot about Nadia Turner,” she does, indeed, fade from view. In the closing pages, as the Mothers finally try to imagine Nadia’s future, the collective “We” also seems to splinter and disintegrate:
We see the span of her life unspooling in colourful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She’s her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside you.
Ultimately, it’s this tension, between the lyrical and the mundane, the surreal and the real, that makes The Mothers a moving testament to small town life, accounting for the primacy of a woman’s right to choose but also to remain indecisive; to leave, and then to return.