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Book review: Brit Bennett’s compelling debut novel The Mothers hits home with a rare force

Author Brit Bennett pulls off the fine balancing act of explaining the lives and motivations of her young characters to an audience who might live a world away from California, while never patronising any young adult readers who would find so much to enjoy here.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Courtesy Penguin Random House

On the very first page of Brit Bennett’s debut novel is a line that deliciously sums up this coming-of-age tale of tangled relationships, small-town gossip and life-changing events.

“All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.”

But the chorus of titular mothers that narrate some of Bennett’s debut can’t help themselves.

Having seen it all before, they’re desperate to tut their disapproval that 17-year-old Nadia, struggling to cope with her mother’s suicide, has fallen pregnant – the father being the pastor’s son, Luke.

And so the story of Nadia, her God-fearing friend Audrey, and Luke begins – and while The Mothers might sound like so many other high-school dramas, there’s a striking vibrancy to the language, setting and characters. Setting The Mothers in an African-American community in south California allows 26-year-old Bennett to smash a few stereotypes: Nadia’s father isn’t perfect but he isn’t absent either. When she is in Michigan, she talks of the subtle hand of racism turning her crazy. “You were always left wondering, was that actually racist? Had you just imagined it?”

Perhaps best of all, Bennett pulls off the fine balancing act of explaining the lives and motivations of her young characters to an audience who might live a world away from California, while never patronising any young adult readers who would find so much to enjoy here. So when it is said of Nadia “like most girls, she’d already learnt that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you”, it’s both heartbreaking and perceptive for anyone, no matter their age.

And yet, having been so comfortable in the high-school setting, Bennett fearlessly and quickly moves The Mothers on through a decade, into the trio’s adult years. Yes, there is a love triangle, but it never trips into melodrama. Instead, it underlines a recurring motif, that decisions innocently made as youngsters leave a permanent mark.

The language is, at times, eye-opening. If The Mothers was a film, it would certainly come with a warning about “adult themes”. But these caveats simply allow Bennett’s debut to hit home with a rare force. Compelling.

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: October 10, 2016 04:00 AM

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