Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Horrors of Motherhood: Sophie Hannah's The Wrong Mother, A Review

The semester is over, the final grades are in, so now I can continue on my search for a relaxing reading list for the holiday season. Mystery novels are my favorite genre of mindless fun reading. I am always on a search for promising female writers, and for some reason, British female mystery writers (or even the writers who, like the talented Elizabeth George, pretend to be British) are always a lot better than female detective novel writers from anywhere else in the world.

My latest discovery is . As a mystery novel, Sophie Hannah's The Wrong Mother: A Novel is almost as good as it gets. (And don't worry there are absolutely NO SPOILERS in this review.) It is a breathtaking, fast-paced police procedural, which thankfully does not overdo the details of police procedure. This novel does exactly what a good detective novel is supposed to do and keeps you guessing until the very last pages. At the same time, it is not one of those annoying mysteries where the readers could not have possibly guessed at the identity of the killer/s simply because the  author did not provide them with some crucial information. Hannah provides enough clues for her readers to solve the riddle for themselves. Another thing that endeared Hannah to me is that she does not revel in gruesome details and does not scatter body parts over each page of the book.  There is also no arcane knowledge of crime scene analysis that is the hallmark of many boring mystery novels.

At the same time, Hannah has a lot to say about womanhood and motherhood, and this made her novel especially fun to read. The following statement, for example, echoes one of my recent posts:
[Women] shoulder burdens rather than dellegate them to their husbands or partners. Often they assume a man wouldn't be able to cope in the way that they can. Plus, they want to make everyone happy, even if it's at their own expense - you know, the martyr mentality. The 'have-the-men-had-enough?' mentality.
Hannah portrays convincingly the painful lot of women who have chosen to parent both their children and their husband, reduced to the role of an eternal teenager in need of mommy's constant mothering.

Hannah's vision of motherhood, which is the central topic of this novel, is beyond bleak. Many of the book's characters are women who used to be extremely happy as single women or in childless marriages. The moment they had children, however, their lives became profoundly and utterly miserable. I have no way
of judging whether Sophie Hannah's portrayal of motherhood is correct, but I have to say that it is extremely powerful.
There is a 'conspiracy of silence' about what motherhood is really like. No one tells you the truth
says one of the novel's characters. Hannah sets out to break this conspiracy of silence and tell her readers what motherhood is really like. The world of being a mother is not what cheesy Hallmark cards tell us, she says. It is constant, undiluted misery, capable of breaking even the strongest and most determined woman. Of course, Hannah recognizes that there are many women who truly enjoy motherhood. The only women who feel like this, however, are the ones who are only good at motherhood and completely incapable of achieving anything else in life. They excel at being mothers because they can't excel at any other pursuit. The following passage is powerful and hilarious and offers a perfect example of both Hannah's writing style and her ideology:
The mothers who immerse themselves in . . . 'the whole mummy thing', the ones who are only so good at mothering because they have to be, because they are afraid of setting foot outside their own front doors and they need the perfect excuse. Can't hack it in the real world? Have a baby, then, and let everyone praise you  for your commitment and devotion to your child above all else. Stand at the school gate twittering, 'All I ever wanted is to be a mum.' People without children can't get away with making an equivalent statement, can they? 'Excuse me, madam, but why do you sit at home all day doing sod all?' 'Oh, well, it's because I want to devote myself to being a niece. I've got an aunt, you see. That's why I've decided not to achieve anything ever. I really want to pour all my time and energy into my niecehood.'
This paragraph is definitely one of the funniest, most beautifully sarcastic things I have read in a while. It also demonstrates why the US mystery writers cannot possibly compete with writers from Great Britain. In order to sell your book as an American author, you have to engage in the Jodi Picoult type of lachrimose, stereotype-laden, Oprahesque writing that offers nothing but the most washed out trivialities.


Anonymous said...

Looks like I am going to have to read this book. Sounds right up my alley.

I like when you do book reviews.


Clarissa said...

Thank you, Mike! This makes me very happy.

Unless you are traumatized by less than rosy portrayals of motherhood, I think you will like the book.

Anonymous said...

I've had the experience of motherhood and the ensuing discovery that my partner is a narcissistic, non-egaletarian, man raised by a sociopathic narcissist. It isn't pretty. Postpartum depression or the life-changing opening of my eyes has left a hole the size of a bomb in my psyche. Having a child is fucking HARD! The first year is something that, if anyone comes out alive, you have successfully navigated. It's brutal folks, and no one fucking talks about that!

Val said...

Another one for my reading list [although I'll have to admit I'm having a hard slog w/"The Man Who Loved Children"]...
Yep, if I knew THEN what I know NOW about the all-consuming vortex of time & energy that is motherhood, can I honestly say I would have gone through w/it?
Probably so, but I would have started when I was a lot YOUNGER!