The Mothers is an outstanding debut novel: an engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking read about the importance of motherhood, and the hardships faced by girls who don’t have a female figure in their lives to help guide them. Bennett’s novel explores friendship, the impact of secrets, and the consequences of disloyalty, as three teenagers grow into young adults. Most importantly, it bestows insight into the lives of middle-class people of colour; a viewpoint I’ve rarely seen explored in all my years reading fiction, which is possibly my own fault — I don’t go looking for such stories, when I really should — but equally, such stories don’t seem to be published, which says a lot about the state of the industry, sure, but also about readers’ willingness to read such tales. As author Angela Flournoy put it in a New York Times article: “Writing about ordinary black people is actually extraordinary. It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.” That’s the point, I think: teenagers Nadia, Luke and Aubrey could easily be characters of any race. Their coming-of-age story — their interwoven destinies — has nothing to do with their race.
Few novels are as poetically searing as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Few books are able to say so much with so little. These three teens are united by the hardships they’ve already been exposed to: Nadia’s mother committed suicide, leaving no note, no explanation; Luke’s promising football career was ended by a freak injury; and Aubrey was forced away from home because of her abusive stepfather. When Nadia learns she’s carrying Luke’s baby, she decides not to keep it; Luke reluctantly scrounges the money for the abortion. It becomes their secret, which endures, leakily, for decades; it brings them together and tears them apart, time and time again, trailing them into adulthood. Even though I sensed where the story was headed, and the heartbreak that awaited, I couldn’t put the book down. I was crushed, repeatedly, by the ill-fated decisions made by the trio; but I continued reading, hoping for the best.
The eponymous “mothers” of the Upper Room church community serve as the novel’s narrator — their introspection frames Bennett’s novel — but if I’m honest, the conceit feels a little forced and unnecessary. There’s no need for the meta narrative, and it can be a tad intrusive at times; but in no way does it detract from the brilliance of Bennett’s debut.
Truly one of my favourite books of the year.