The Mother's Tale by Camilla Noli

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The Mother's Tale by Camilla Noli

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Gripping novel of maternal instincts of the worst kind. The first few chapters are slow, but worth getting through for what follows.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 978-1409101581

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It is early evening. I am suckling my infant son… We are picture perfect. Madonna and child.

No doubt about it: a new mother totally smitten with her son. Zach is adorable. Quiet. Undemanding. A happy, generally relaxed, child. Gorgeous.

But Zach isn't her first-born. First there was Cassie. A child who entered the world screaming and has since learned exactly what power she can wring with such lungs. Not yet two years old, Cassie adores her father, but even him she manipulates. Her mother she terrorises.

Our story-teller isn't the Madonna. She's a rag-doll filled with lead. She goes to the toddler groups and shares her experiences. She tries to do what good mothers should, though she's not sure she understands what that is, and even less sure that she agrees. She sneaks her reading at the kitchen sink, longs for adult conversation, above all longs for the day when she can go back to work; go back to being normal, back to a Life.

She fell in love, but children were on her husband's agenda more than hers… but children came along anyway. Still she thought, she could do the immediate necessities and get back to her life. Daniel, the husband, has other ideas. Strong ideas that a mother should stay home. How could she think of doing otherwise?!

I suspect that anyone who has done so of necessity, rather than choice, could answer that question. And probably quite a few of those who chose to stay home could understand the motivations, the need for something… if not necessarily more, then at least other.

My brother is older than me by eighteen months. He was a screamer. A crier. He just doesn't need the sleep doctors told my mother. It's ok. Of course it wasn't ok. He didn't need the sleep, but she did. I grew up hearing my mother restating her belief that she would never condemn a mother for harming her child until she'd heard the whole story. Many's the night I'd have put him through the window, without stopping to open it she said. He'd lie placid in her arms as she walked the floor. Until she stopped. Then he'd cry for more.

I came along and knew better. I'm convinced she told me in the womb that if she had to go through that again I would not survive. I was a sleeper. I'd wake to be fed, feed, and sleep again. Quietly.

I've grown up to need my sleep. I'm rarely just tired. I go straight from fully functioning to sleep-deprived, unable to operate, let alone think. I don't have children, but I support my mother's view. I'd never condemn until I'd heard it all.

The Mother's Tale tells it all.

The love. The longing. The despair. The sheer unadulterated loathing. The darkest recesses of one woman's responses: love, jealousy, fear, abandonment, self-loss and the desire for a true self-contained family which doesn't allow for the battle of wills that has already commenced. A grown woman. A scarce-born child. And a man who is blind to all of it.

Then the worst of all imaginings happens.

The Mother's Tale starts in lyricism and quickly degenerates into chick-lit: lovers meetings and toddler groups and bitchy gossip and unenlightening sex. A few chapters to lull the reader into a false sense of security, before it takes a darker and more engrossing turn.

The second half of the book is built on the suspense of what will be found, and what will result from the finding of it. Secrets, we're told, will be difficult to keep, motivations will not be understood.

But are they understood by our protagonist herself? Everything is told through her eyes, and they can be cold penetrating eyes, but self-justifying all the same. I truly felt for her – up to a point. The strain of motherhood is at the root of it. But so is the lost glory of a life among the beautiful people. I guess that's the moral the book has, if it must have one: that we all have a line. Noli asks us where we would draw it. Does the motivation make a difference? Or is it only the outcome that matters.

A short-ish novel of under two hundred pages, tightly written. After the shaky start, the pitch and tenor are pitch-perfect to the plot. Perfect for that wet afternoon, or long journey, where you get to read the whole at a sitting.

I didn't expect this one to grab me. I was wrong.

I try not to speak about endings because it is, literally, the last thing a review reader wants to learn. In this case it's hard to avoid. The actual ending I will leave readers to find and fathom for themselves, but the penultimate scene puzzles me. It left me with such an overwhelming sense of déjà vue, that if any readers can explain whether I might actually have come across it before, I'd be really interested to hear from them.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for other surprising doings within families try The Birthdays by Heidi Pitlor. I'm sure the fact that the father is called Daniel is entirely a coincidence.

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