Hindustantimes wants to start sending you push notifications. Click allow to subscribe

Essay: Missing mothers in recent fiction

BySharmistha Jha
Oct 30, 2023 06:04 PM IST

Pearl, Western Lane, and How to Build a Boat, all of which made it to international award lists this year feature loss of mothers

Great literature has been written about mothers. Toni Morrison has written about mothers, and so have Deborah Levy, Simone De Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and many others. The world has imagined the mother and motherhood to great lengths. In her award-winning novel Beloved, Morrison wrote about fearless mothers who would end one child’s life to save the lives of three children. Deborah Levy wrote about the gendered institutions of womanhood and motherhood in her best selling living autobiographies Things I don’t Want to Know, Cost of Living, Real Estate. She wrote about the fictional nature of the perfect mother that the world has imagined. Jessamine Chan wrote about the unrealistic expectations our cultures have of mothers in her speculative fiction book The School for Good Mothers. Mothers are the stuff of great literature. But what happens when the mother goes missing?

PREMIUM
Mother and child in an idyllic picture. (Shutterstock)

On a podcast, Maggie O’ Farrell once described grief as “love turned inside out”, like when you turn your sock inside out and you see threads of embroidery come together to weave a pretty flower on the outside. She was talking about the loss of a child in her book, Hamnet. Her words came back to me when I read Pearl, which describes a child losing her mother. The book actually starts with the disappearance of a mother. The author Sian Hughes takes all that grief and turns it inside out and the reader finds the abundance of love that the narrator has for her missing mother. Turns out missing mothers and motherhood itself are at the centre of at least three of the books – Pearl, Western Lane, and How to Build a Boat – that made it to the Booker Prize longlist this year. And though all of them didn’t make the leap to the shortlist, each is still a work of immense power.

“Pearl is a heartbreaking account of the disappearance of the narrator’s mother.”

Pearl: Can mothers pass on grief and madness to their daughters?

How do we remember the dead? Are we allowed to forget grief? Are we allowed moments of happiness clear of shame? Pearl is a heartbreaking account of the disappearance of the narrator’s mother. The aftermath of her disappearance is coloured with the narrator’s pain and shame at having been abandoned. For a long time, she cannot hold on to any positive memories until she becomes a mother herself and the puzzle pieces of her mother’s disappearance start to fall into the right places.

“My mother walked out when I was eight years old, and she has never been found. My brother was a baby. No, she had never been diagnosed with anything because she hid from the doctors. She hid from everyone… So, yes, there is a family history’. Sian Hughes writes about grief that can be passed down through generations. The narrator is no stranger to grief and madness but it becomes much more difficult when she experiences post-partum psychosis following the birth of her daughter.

READ MORE: Siân Hughes, author, Pearl - “A novel has to have a life of its own”

There are two mothers in this story – the narrator who becomes a mother, and the narrator’s mother who goes missing. Pearl is full of miracles and ghosts – ghosts of babies, ghosts of mothers, the miracle that is the narrator’s daughter Susannah and her survival as the narrator suffers from post-partum psychosis and sees angels just like her mother did. The book explores how a mother’s absence can shape the individual. Susannah’s father also grew up without a mother. His mother left to make a life with someone else and that gave him mistrust of women. The narrator finds this attractive. It is as if she has a radar for people abandoned by their mothers. A meditation on grief and love, Pearl uncovers mysteries about mothers and motherloss.

“Mothers are the glue that holds families together and Maroo shows us the disorder in grief that follows motherloss.”

Western Lane: An intimate mourning

In Western Lane, the family dynamics completely shift after the death of the mother of three teenage girls. She leaves behind a void of silence that Chetna Maroo translates to the page. The father, Pa, decides to enlist his daughters for squash at Western Lane in an attempt to give them the discipline they suddenly lack in their structureless lives. One of the daughters, Gopi, looks like her mother and that sometimes startles Pa. Chetna Maroo writes about what is left behind in the wake of a mother’s death – a family that does not know how to give words to their grief. So they grieve in their own ways – a daughter talks to her mother’s ghost in her sleep and Pa sees the ghost of his wife in her sitting chair. The family is slowly disintegrating and an aunt and uncle offer to take one of the girls as they think three girls might be too much for Pa to raise by himself. The thought of the separation makes the reader ache.

READ MORE: Review: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

As the truncated family try to reconstruct their lives, shame trails behind them. There is shame in trying to move on, in trying to find happiness somewhere else. Mona, the eldest sister reminds Gopi time and again that Ged, a white boy she plays squash with, and his mother too, wouldn’t have hung around with her had her own mother been alive. Mona is assuming the role of a parent: “She began to manage everything in the house… She served me extra dal and rice and took less for herself... sometimes we could feel the strain in her, the mental and physical burden of being something she was not.”

The members of this Gujarati- British family are expected to follow the community’s rules of grieving. The girls are supposed to stay away from any non-Indian boys and the father is not supposed to mingle with Ged’s mother. Mothers are the glue that holds families together and Maroo shows us the disorder in grief that follows motherloss.

“Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat explores how motherhood shapes people in many ways.”

How to Build a Boat: the complexity of grief

Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat conjures images of rural Ireland and the Irish sea. It explores how motherhood shapes people in many ways. Jamie, the protagonist, is an additional needs child whose mother died in childbirth. He believes he can be reunited with her by building a perpetual motion machine. This logic makes sense only to him. His teacher Tess and her colleague Tadhg decide to take him under their wing and the fractured lives of the three come together beautifully in this novel that explores humanity, love, and grief.

Tess has gone through multiple rounds of failed IVF. Through her, the author reflects on the difficulties of womanhood and motherhood, and the social expectations that weigh down women. The rounds of IVF have an adverse effect on Tess’s body. Her heart races, she is groggy, she panics and she is depressed. “Mostly she blames the injections, the up and down of it all; bursting-out-in-tears in one moment and in another, mad feelings of overwhelming elation flooding her. It was an unsettling see-sawing.” Tess had also lost her mother as a child, and this draws Jamie to her.

“Tess has gone through multiple rounds of failed IVF. Through her, the author reflects on the difficulties of womanhood and motherhood, and the social expectations that weigh down women.” (Shutterstock)

Writing about the varied nature of motherloss and grief for both Jamie and his father, Feeney reflects, “Grief was profoundly different for both humans. One felt an intense anger he had never recovered from, the other knew something was missing, a vacuum to where a mother should fit, and he had a fixed determination to fill it.’ Feeney’s characters find themselves at the edges of society, not finding acceptance elsewhere but in each others’ company.

Mothers are indeed the stuff of great literature. From Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy, fiction is full of a variety of mothers. But what happens when the mother goes missing? Pearl, How to Build a Boat, and Western Lane are vastly different in their intent, style and tone, but each is a meditation on the longing for a relationship with mothers and the memory of mothers.

Sharmistha Jha is an independent writer and editor.

Great literature has been written about mothers. Toni Morrison has written about mothers, and so have Deborah Levy, Simone De Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and many others. The world has imagined the mother and motherhood to great lengths. In her award-winning novel Beloved, Morrison wrote about fearless mothers who would end one child’s life to save the lives of three children. Deborah Levy wrote about the gendered institutions of womanhood and motherhood in her best selling living autobiographies Things I don’t Want to Know, Cost of Living, Real Estate. She wrote about the fictional nature of the perfect mother that the world has imagined. Jessamine Chan wrote about the unrealistic expectations our cultures have of mothers in her speculative fiction book The School for Good Mothers. Mothers are the stuff of great literature. But what happens when the mother goes missing?

PREMIUM
Mother and child in an idyllic picture. (Shutterstock)

On a podcast, Maggie O’ Farrell once described grief as “love turned inside out”, like when you turn your sock inside out and you see threads of embroidery come together to weave a pretty flower on the outside. She was talking about the loss of a child in her book, Hamnet. Her words came back to me when I read Pearl, which describes a child losing her mother. The book actually starts with the disappearance of a mother. The author Sian Hughes takes all that grief and turns it inside out and the reader finds the abundance of love that the narrator has for her missing mother. Turns out missing mothers and motherhood itself are at the centre of at least three of the books – Pearl, Western Lane, and How to Build a Boat – that made it to the Booker Prize longlist this year. And though all of them didn’t make the leap to the shortlist, each is still a work of immense power.

“Pearl is a heartbreaking account of the disappearance of the narrator’s mother.”

Pearl: Can mothers pass on grief and madness to their daughters?

How do we remember the dead? Are we allowed to forget grief? Are we allowed moments of happiness clear of shame? Pearl is a heartbreaking account of the disappearance of the narrator’s mother. The aftermath of her disappearance is coloured with the narrator’s pain and shame at having been abandoned. For a long time, she cannot hold on to any positive memories until she becomes a mother herself and the puzzle pieces of her mother’s disappearance start to fall into the right places.

“My mother walked out when I was eight years old, and she has never been found. My brother was a baby. No, she had never been diagnosed with anything because she hid from the doctors. She hid from everyone… So, yes, there is a family history’. Sian Hughes writes about grief that can be passed down through generations. The narrator is no stranger to grief and madness but it becomes much more difficult when she experiences post-partum psychosis following the birth of her daughter.

READ MORE: Siân Hughes, author, Pearl - “A novel has to have a life of its own”

There are two mothers in this story – the narrator who becomes a mother, and the narrator’s mother who goes missing. Pearl is full of miracles and ghosts – ghosts of babies, ghosts of mothers, the miracle that is the narrator’s daughter Susannah and her survival as the narrator suffers from post-partum psychosis and sees angels just like her mother did. The book explores how a mother’s absence can shape the individual. Susannah’s father also grew up without a mother. His mother left to make a life with someone else and that gave him mistrust of women. The narrator finds this attractive. It is as if she has a radar for people abandoned by their mothers. A meditation on grief and love, Pearl uncovers mysteries about mothers and motherloss.

“Mothers are the glue that holds families together and Maroo shows us the disorder in grief that follows motherloss.”

Western Lane: An intimate mourning

In Western Lane, the family dynamics completely shift after the death of the mother of three teenage girls. She leaves behind a void of silence that Chetna Maroo translates to the page. The father, Pa, decides to enlist his daughters for squash at Western Lane in an attempt to give them the discipline they suddenly lack in their structureless lives. One of the daughters, Gopi, looks like her mother and that sometimes startles Pa. Chetna Maroo writes about what is left behind in the wake of a mother’s death – a family that does not know how to give words to their grief. So they grieve in their own ways – a daughter talks to her mother’s ghost in her sleep and Pa sees the ghost of his wife in her sitting chair. The family is slowly disintegrating and an aunt and uncle offer to take one of the girls as they think three girls might be too much for Pa to raise by himself. The thought of the separation makes the reader ache.

READ MORE: Review: Western Lane by Chetna Maroo

As the truncated family try to reconstruct their lives, shame trails behind them. There is shame in trying to move on, in trying to find happiness somewhere else. Mona, the eldest sister reminds Gopi time and again that Ged, a white boy she plays squash with, and his mother too, wouldn’t have hung around with her had her own mother been alive. Mona is assuming the role of a parent: “She began to manage everything in the house… She served me extra dal and rice and took less for herself... sometimes we could feel the strain in her, the mental and physical burden of being something she was not.”

The members of this Gujarati- British family are expected to follow the community’s rules of grieving. The girls are supposed to stay away from any non-Indian boys and the father is not supposed to mingle with Ged’s mother. Mothers are the glue that holds families together and Maroo shows us the disorder in grief that follows motherloss.

“Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat explores how motherhood shapes people in many ways.”

How to Build a Boat: the complexity of grief

Elaine Feeney’s How to Build a Boat conjures images of rural Ireland and the Irish sea. It explores how motherhood shapes people in many ways. Jamie, the protagonist, is an additional needs child whose mother died in childbirth. He believes he can be reunited with her by building a perpetual motion machine. This logic makes sense only to him. His teacher Tess and her colleague Tadhg decide to take him under their wing and the fractured lives of the three come together beautifully in this novel that explores humanity, love, and grief.

Tess has gone through multiple rounds of failed IVF. Through her, the author reflects on the difficulties of womanhood and motherhood, and the social expectations that weigh down women. The rounds of IVF have an adverse effect on Tess’s body. Her heart races, she is groggy, she panics and she is depressed. “Mostly she blames the injections, the up and down of it all; bursting-out-in-tears in one moment and in another, mad feelings of overwhelming elation flooding her. It was an unsettling see-sawing.” Tess had also lost her mother as a child, and this draws Jamie to her.

“Tess has gone through multiple rounds of failed IVF. Through her, the author reflects on the difficulties of womanhood and motherhood, and the social expectations that weigh down women.” (Shutterstock)

Writing about the varied nature of motherloss and grief for both Jamie and his father, Feeney reflects, “Grief was profoundly different for both humans. One felt an intense anger he had never recovered from, the other knew something was missing, a vacuum to where a mother should fit, and he had a fixed determination to fill it.’ Feeney’s characters find themselves at the edges of society, not finding acceptance elsewhere but in each others’ company.

Mothers are indeed the stuff of great literature. From Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy, fiction is full of a variety of mothers. But what happens when the mother goes missing? Pearl, How to Build a Boat, and Western Lane are vastly different in their intent, style and tone, but each is a meditation on the longing for a relationship with mothers and the memory of mothers.

Sharmistha Jha is an independent writer and editor.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Topics
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
OPEN APP