“What did a bunch of old ladies know? We would’ve told her that altogether, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself.”
The title of Brit Bennett's superb debut novel The Mothers refers, in part, to a group of gossipy and reproving older women from a black church community in southern California. With the effect of a Greek chorus, they bookend the stories of three young adults, offering their advice and admonitions at various stages of the journey.
The tumultuous lives of the three protagonists give “the Mothers” of Upper Room Chapel in Oceanside, San Diego, plenty to chinwag about. When we first meet the novel’s central character, Nadia Turner, she is 17, pregnant and fully sure she wants to become “unpregnant”. Nadia is unwilling to repeat the history of her mother, Elise, who was disowned by her family for conceiving Nadia out of wedlock. The fact that Elise has killed herself a few months before Nadia gets pregnant adds further layers to the complex relationship between mother and daughter: “If you couldn’t know the person whose body was your first home, then who could you ever know?”
The father of Nadia’s “Baby” is Luke Sheppard, the son of the pastor whose college football career is sidelined by injury. Completing the triangle is Nadia’s best friend, Aubrey, newly arrived to Oceanside and desperately seeking sanctuary and salvation from her mother’s abusive boyfriend. Confidently handled switches from the first-person-plural voice of the church mothers to the third-person limited perspectives of Nadia, Aubrey and Luke bring the reader deep into the mindset of the characters and the wider community.
For a young writer, Bennett is remarkably sharp on the psychology of human behaviour. Nadia’s decision about the pregnancy, Elise’s reasons for suicide, her husband Robert’s grief and detachment, Aubrey’s struggles with sex, and subsequently infertility, Luke’s dashed ambitions, and the numerous betrayals that happen between the younger characters are all explored with a keen understanding.
From California, Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction and the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Aged just 25, her work has featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, NPR and Jezebel.
Bennett has the effortless style and precise language of a more established author – the rich domesticity of Anne Tyler, the eloquent racial arguments of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is hard, too, when reading The Mothers, not to be reminded of the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides. The Virgin Suicides is evoked in the gossipy, guilt-ridden "we" of the surrounding community: "We have never understood it, although maybe we should. We are, after all, the last ones to have seen Elise Turner alive." In the love triangle and distinct characterisation of Nadia, Aubrey and Luke, there are echoes of Eugenides's The Marriage Plot. The focus in Bennett's world is female, however, with both Nadia and Aubrey getting more page time than Luke.
With the subject of motherhood repeating in various strains throughout the novel, “some by heart and some by womb”, it is the female capacity for love and nurture that preoccupies the author. Luke’s mother, Latrice, is “first lady” of Upper Rooms, by turns mothering the neglected Aubrey and shunning the seemingly self-sufficient Nadia. Aubrey’s sister Monique, and her girlfriend, Kasey, are surrogates to Aubrey, taking her in when she washes up in Oceanside. There is the lack of Elise in Nadia’s life (“maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable”), the decision by Nadia at the beginning of the book to reject motherhood, and the poignant later meeting with “a girl who wouldn’t exist if her own child did”.
Over it all, the church mothers watch from the wings, dispensing advice, looking to care for those who appear deserving. When Nadia comes back to Oceanside after law school to tend to her ailing father, she is the prodigal daughter, “worse than that even, because she hadn’t returned home penniless and humbled”.
Along with motherhood, race and religion are to the fore: “Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” Nadia notes the subtle racism of the predominantly white Michigan campus, including “White girls who expected her to walk on the slushy part of the sidewalk”.
The importance of community at Upper Rooms is shown through the members helping out in times of illness or donating for special occasions, but Bennett also highlights the hypocrisy of such tight-knit communities. And sometimes, as in the case of her own mother’s death, there is no community or religion that can make things better, no surrogate to be found: “A soft death can be swallowed with Called home to be with the Lord or We’ll see her again in glory, but hard deaths get caught in the teeth like gristle.”
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist