by Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 2016, ISBN 9-780-39918-451-2, 278pp
I finished last week “The Mothers” by Brit Bennett. I had heard Brit Bennett talking on a podcast some weeks ago. “The Mothers” is her first novel and I was impressed by the way she described it on the podcast and, although it didn’t seem the sort of novel I would usually choose, when I saw it in the Potts Point Bookshop in Macleay Street I decided to snap it up.
I remembered being impressed with how Bennett interviewed in the podcast and, after I had read “The Mothers” I found her 2014 essay “I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People” published on Jezebel. This essay depends upon its American context but confirms my view that this woman is a good writer and that we should look forward to her next novel.
Perhaps not surprisingly, if you read the essay first, “The Mothers” is set in a contemporary black community in Southern California. It is a novel that is primarily about love. We all have our own preconceptions and experiences about what love is and what it should be like. We apply these prejudices and experiences to the actions of the characters we see in books and movies. As an independent observer it is easy to judge because we are outside the context. The context of this book is the community itself and its prejudices and expectations and the way those prejudices and expectations drive people’s actions. It is also about determination, and perhaps ambition. At the centre of the novel is a secret that, like any secret, is known by only a few but eventually becomes known by all. The book’s opening sentence says “we didn’t believe when we first heard because you know church folk can gossip.” After that the story proceeds with some pace.
It describes the experiences of Nadia Turner who falls pregnant to Luke Sheppard. Luke is the son of the local pastor; for his family a pregnancy is a disaster. Nadia befriends the conformist Aubrey Evans. Luke is the link between the two girls as the story unfolds. Nadia attempts to escape the shackles of her hometown and follow her ambition to read for the bar. While she succeeds in this a family tragedy forces her back to her community with a devastating effect on Aubrey and Luke. This is a love triangle that cannot be easily unpicked, if at all. While it is set in the present, I found that I was drawn into believing that its events must have happened in the past. Perhaps this is because Bennett paints a picture of a suffocatingly self-righteous community that could only have existed in the past, even though you know it is happening today.
Bennett’s characters are very well drawn; they are complex and real. The layers of complexity unfold and it’s this complexity that drives the plot. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the book is an easy read. It leaves its reader, as any good book should leave its reader, wondering about what happened next. Bennett is 25. She clearly has a long career ahead of her and we can look for some rewarding novels from her pen.