The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An age-old tale told in a wonderfully fresh voice. Young love and old wisdom, and some of the reverse as well.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Riverhead Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0399184512

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I love it when I get a book so very few have read yet, but it's hard to say what needs to be said, when you're not allowed to quote.

All good secrets have a taste before you tell them… The one and only thing wrong with this wonderful book – assuming it goes to press the way it is proof-printed is that this snippet which makes it to the top of page two is not the opening line. OR – if they've changed it in the final edition – this is an opening line to echo down the ages along with it is a truth universally acknowledged and all the others.

Secrets and lies, love and friendship, youth and wisdom: these are the themes of Bennett's debut novel. None of these things are mutually exclusive she tells us. All of them are woven through all of our lives, good lives, flawed lives, young ones and old ones, lives well-lived and those somewhat wasted. There is always a mix, however hard we might try.

Nadia Turner is 17, intelligent and beautiful. She is also mourning the loss of a mother who shot herself, and a father who is not really there. That the son of a preacher man should be the one she takes up with, isn't so much a cliché as an inevitability. They have the same things against which to rebel. Luke, 21, college-dropout when his football scholarship snapped along with his leg, is trying to make a decent living. Nadia has bigger dreams. But for one summer they are everything each of them needs.

Only, no-one knows. When it explodes, no-one can know. The choices each of them makes, and the choices that are made for them, and the degree to which they keep their motives secret even from one another will litter not just their lives but the whole community for years to come.

Then there is Aubrey. Aubrey is what I would call a churchling. She would argue differently, but she has come to Upper Room Chapel, not because of any religious belief, but because she needs a place to belong, a place where she can prove she is good, she is worthwhile. She too is mourning a lost mother. She too has secrets to hide. Unexpectedly, she becomes Nadia's best friend.

Her life and Nadia's and Luke's intertwine, as they will in a small community. And whatever you think, the big cities are made up of small communities. I suspect that is true the world over, though it seems to me to be more true in America. This particular community is black and church-centred, threaded through with military service and its own particular impacts on mentality and morale certitude. Everyone knows everyone else. They think.

Some books are about plot. The plot here is tightly controlled, but there are few surprises.

Some books are about character. The characters here are sharply drawn and authentic and believable.

Other books soar because of the freshness of the voice telling the tale. Bennett's voice is distinctive. You have a vision of her unnamed, undescribed narrator within seconds of hearing her speak. You know within a page or two that she is one of the 'mothers' of the title, but that there will be others to come into this story. The story-telling mother is compassionate. She gossips and has her spiteful moments, but also she remembers being young, she understands the 'why' of what happens even as she tries to condemn it or forgive, but not to forget. There is something behind the voice which implies, forgiveness or otherwise, forgetting would be wrong. After all every woman that was ever a girl has loved an ain't shit man. Ain't that the truth?!

It's a definitively black woman's voice. It's definitively the voice of a woman who has lived. One probably brought up in the church, returned to the church if she ever left it, one for whom scripture is a good but imperfect teacher. There is a wonderful piece about the good shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek the one that is lost – and what that might mean for the 99. It's a book that draws on the bible teachings, but also one that is strewn with parables all of its own.

The language is as sharp as the observation. There's a focus on the minutiae of lives that matter only to those living them. Where and how a man eats his dinner. Why the pictures have been removed from the walls. The reasons for staying away and those for coming home. It's about what we wear and why. It's about the scents that drive our doubts and haunt our memories.

It is about how we keep on trying to do the right thing, even when we know we've failed so far.

It's simply told in a voice that doesn't falter the whole way through. It may not move you to tears, but it will make you smile, and make you think, and make you care. If Jane Austen were a black, 21st century American woman, this is what she'd be writing.

If you like this then take another slice of coming-of-age in small time America with If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel.

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