Drawn to the colourful cover and my love of novels set in small-communities, I decided to give The Mothers a go. Sensitive subject warning: this novel deals with issues, such as suicide and abortion, handled with care in this novel but I’m aware these may be topics some readers want to avoid reading about.
Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett’s mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. It begins with a secret.
It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance – and the subsequent cover-up – will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
In entrancing, lyrical prose, The Mothers asks whether a “what if” can be more powerful than an experience itself. If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the decisions we make that shape our lives forever.
The Mothers is Brit Bennett’s debut novel, and what a powerful one it is! This novel follows Nadia, Luke, and Nadia’s best friends, Aubrey, from their teenage years into their early twenties. It is a coming-of-age tale for all three teenagers; Nadia, in particular, as she is our main character. This is one of those quiet novels with a big heart; a great exploration of the lives of these teenagers and the far reach of the consequences of their actions. Included was some well-placed narration from the church elders, aka ‘the mothers’.
“We’ve seen what this world has to offer. We’re scared of what it wants.”
This novel is an immersive read, subtle in narration but powerful in delivery. The theme of ‘absence’ was so strong in this novel, and played a huge part, understandably, in Nadia’s life. Though the reader never meets Nadia’s mother, as the novels opens after her recent suicide, her absence is very much a character. You really feel Nadia’s, and her father’s, grief, and it’s shocking the impact a character you never meet has on the direction of the plot, the choices the characters make. The loss of Nadia’s mother opened up a great storyline of Nadia’s relationship with her father, and this was explored, again, subtly, but powerfully, and really did have me asking “what if”.
Loss and loneliness can be all encompassing:
“There was nothing lonelier than the moment you realized someone had abandoned you.”
I felt claustrophobic on Nadia’s behalf, the entire town knew about her mother’s suicide, they judged her for her rebellious behaviour, her father was drowning in his own grief – you get this real sense that Nadia is suffocating, despite feeling so alone, this small town is smothering her and I just wanted her to escape, to find her happiness, to breathe.
The Mothers is an emotive read, and I commend Bennett for how well she handled these sensitive subjects. It was an ambitious move to address so many powerful topics in this novel, but it paid off – yes, some things could have been fleshed out and explored more but I think the purpose of getting the reader, through these characters, to start thinking about the road not taken was achieved.
I’m aware this review has focused on Nadia, so I just wanted to mention Luke and Aubrey briefly. They were interesting characters too, especially Luke. He is dealing with a different loss, the lost of his dreams, his future as he wanted it, and he not only has to come to terms with that, but also with the choices he made.
Bennett allows you to journey with these characters as they try to make sense of their lives, things in their control and those out of it. This novel conveyed such strength in looking at the road not taken, showing how pivotal events shape our lives and how we are always victim to our decisions. If you’re looking for an immersive, coming-of-age tale, with some of the strongest themes (love, loss, friendship, family-ties, community, grief, absence, betrayal, ambition), then I highly recommend The Mothers.