Monday, January 30, 2017

"The Mothers," by Brit Bennett

"The Mothers” (Riverhead, 2016) is a very strong debut novel by Brit Bennett. Set mostly in Oceanside, California (near San Diego), the story revolves around the members of a middle-class African American church, Upper Room Chapel. The main characters are Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, who at the beginning of the story are aged 17 (in the case of the two girls) and 21 (Luke); the story takes place over a period of about 10 years. They have each experienced both love and sadness in their childhoods, including the suicide of Nadia’s mother. Each of the three main characters is close to each of the others, but there are important secrets among them, secrets that rend their relationships. In the background is a chorus of a group of older women from the church, known as “The Mothers.” They observe, they talk, they advise, they comment, with both judgment and, sometimes, mercy. All of the characters are strongly portrayed, and the writing is powerful and assured. I generally am attracted to novels about families, mothers and daughters, female friends, and other relationships, and I was to this novel’s stories as well. But one hesitation I had, and this was mentioned in at least one review of the novel, was about the tendency of the novel to verge on being an anti-abortion screed. The biggest secret in the book involves an abortion, and it seems the author will not allow the young woman to ever get over this event in her life, despite gaining an education at a prestigious university, traveling extensively, and in general being successful. Of course the author has the right to include such a theme, and to represent what she believes some young women have experienced; some readers will agree with this perspective and others will not. In any case, Bennett’s is a vivid new voice on the literary scene, and I look forward to seeing her future writing.
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