It’s Mother’s Day in the UK, so what better time to delve into literature about motherhood?
Whether the relationship is comforting or fraught, close or distant, motherhood is an enduring topic within literature. It’s not hard to see why – we all can relate, in some way, even if those ways are often different and hard to describe.
I wanted to think about how authors have fictionalised this relationship, and the different ways in which it is explored.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Genre: American literature
Synopsis: Set in the mid-1800’s in the aftermath of the American Civil War, Beloved chronicles the experiences of Sethe, abandoned by her sons and living with her youngest daughter in Cincinnati. Sethe’s is a house haunted by secrets; of the violent, traumatic memories of her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky and by shameful secrets that refuse to stay buried.
Beloved, like most of Morrison’s books, has a rich variety of themes, and motherhood is undoubtedly one of the key ones throughout this book.
The main character, Sethe, is defined by her children and the horrific slavery she’s endured. The second robs women of the first, deliberately and violently, and so any of Sethe’s actions afterwards are an escape. The book also explores motherhood in earlier generations, to show how enduring the struggle is in a time of slavery.
This book, again like many of Morrion’s, can be a difficult read at first. There’s never any setup or preparation, and as a reader you are thrust into the story haphazardly, a story full of literary themes and extended metaphor and complex context. But they’re always worth it.
The One Plus One – Jojo Moyes
Synopsis: Jess Thomas has two jobs and two kids and never enough money. And when life knocks her down she does her best to bounce right back. But no one told her it’s okay to ask for help.
This book follows Jess, as she struggles to make ends meet, working multiple jobs and taking care of two kids – a gifted daughter she can’t afford to send to a better school and a stepson who is being bullied.
This is an easy read. It flips between character narratives, but mostly sticks with Jess’ POV, which is uplifting and perfectly reflects her determined voice. Although I also enjoyed the narration from her daughter, Tanzie, mostly for it’s little-kid-innocence, I think a nice bit of mystery was lost by including POVs from each main character, meaning it felt a little like everything was being spelled out. Then again, I’m not much of a reader of chick-lit, so maybe that’s just genre-specific?
In fact, I only read this book as I’d previously read Moyes’ Me Before You, and I enjoyed her writing and wanted something fun. I did find there were a few similarities, but I enjoyed the moral struggle throughout.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Synopsis: Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford her assigned name, Offred, means of Fred . She has only one function: to breed.
Is motherhood the first thing you think of when Atwood’s dystopian tale comes to mind? It’s the driving force of the book.
The Handmaids are only meant to be women having children – there begins and ends their role in society. So motherhood in this book is not so much a choice but a job role. And yet, the narrator frequently lingers on her daughter – taken away from her at the advent of Gilead. Her identity as a mother, as a person not just as a position, is of tantamount importance to her. She is expected to give birth again, but not to be a mother.
This isn’t one of my favourite books, probably because of how unsettling it is, but there’s no denying the excellent writing.
Secret Daughter – Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Synopsis: In a tiny hut in rural India, Kavita gives birth to Asha. Unable to raise a daughter, Kavita gives the baby up. Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own.
The narrative in this book is split equally between Kavita, living in rural India, and Somer, an American doctor: two mothers.
They are connected through Asha – the secret daughter of the title – who adds the extra element, of the daughter’s voice. However, most of the chapters are told from Kavita or Somer’s POV; in short, sharp bursts that build plot and emotion equally. The story moves at a pace that mimicks the desperation of both of these women, and it’s an easy book to read – something I can easily call a ‘page-turner.’
The life imbued into India and Indian culture throughout this book is so much of what makes it stand out, especially as you learn motherhood here is just meant as a gateway into a larger family, and how it feels to be on the outside of that.
The Light Between Oceans – M. L. Stedman
Synopsis: A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.
Genre: Historical fiction
This is set in 1926, in Australia, a time and a place I always feel breeds books about isolation and otherness, even if it weren’t set on a lighthouse.
I really enjoyed the lighthouse setting, actually; it serves as a kind of seperation from the reality of Isabel and Tom, and the rest of the world that beckons. The plot is essentially spurred on by Isabel, who, when a baby washes up at their shore, decides to keep it and raise her. The flawed nature of these characters, and the way you are forced to become implicit in their actions by making unconscious judgements, is part of what makes this story feel so tangible.
Stedman’s writing is incredibly atmospheric, and the setting, Janus Island, is aptly named. It’s difficult not to feel so impacted by every plot event because you know consequences are coming.
Interestingly, I see I’ve chosen entirely books that are about the mother-daughter relationship (apart from, a little, in The One Plus One).
That is not, of course, the complete list of books about motherhood. Others on my reading list include:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. It is his debut novel, following many works of poems, and reads so similarly to poetry it’s hard not to be completely enthralled by the language. I haven’t finished it yet, and I want to give it the time it deserves!
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver which I will be reading in my Reading Women Challenge!
Motherwell by Deborah Orr, which is a non-fiction memoir chronicling the life of the author as she moved away from her hometown and went to university – a move her mother was not in support of. I’m planning to read far more non-fiction this year!
Have you read any of these books? What do you think about motherhood as a theme?