By Jennifer Levasseur
One of the best ways I know to judge the quality of a novel and its endurance rests in its ability to transcend subject matter—and the potential reader’s innate prejudices and proclivities. The Mothers, Brit Bennett’s Leonard Prize-shortlisted debut novel, manages this so slyly and with such unassuming gusto and finesse that I’m pleased to have it as one of my final and favorite reads of the year. (And it gives me yet another nudge to remain open, to push myself to read more widely and more wildly.) If I’d simply heard The Mothers’ premise—a teenager who recently lost her mother to suicide conducts a secret romance with the pastor’s son—I surely would have pushed it aside in favor of one of the many, many other books waiting to be read.
So why did I find this quiet novel compelling? Bennett allows her characters to feel without providing overdrawn explanations for their emotions or their actions. She accepts the silence of teenagers and of parents and the ways that we reform the past as we take stock of our present. Above all, she grapples with how a single decision can remake a life, as well as all the lives around us. She pulls us along as Nadia Turner, without counsel or support, makes a choice that will color every moment of her future. Only later does she discover a friend in the shy, mousy girl who fled her mother’s boyfriend and was welcomed into the church.
The most beautiful writing in this story of a rebellious, pretty and brainy California girl testing her worth in the shadow of her mother’s violent death arrives in the frequent first-person plural sections (reminiscent of Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame and the dreamy sections of The Landscape of Desire) in which we receive the wisdom, the excuses and the gossip of the church’s female elders: those reliable, prayerful, sneaky, loving and judgmental women in the last phase of life, after they’ve lost husbands and children and a more active role in the world. While they might be invisible to the greater society, within the walls of the Upper Room, they see all, know most, form the advice not asked and not given (“If Nadia Turner had asked, we would’ve warned her to stay away from him.”), while they track the saints and sinners:
We don’t think of ourselves as “prayer warriors.” A man must’ve come up with that term—men think anything difficult is war. But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer. More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don’t even know. You close your eyes and listen to a request. Then you have to slip inside their body. You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey. You are Cindy Harris’s husband, searching your wife’s phone. You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter’s hair.
This amalgam of women understand the world but live mostly outside and above it, narrating like a Greek chorus the events they witness:
We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.
Oh, you can’t see it now—our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks drooping. … But we were girls once, which is to say, we have all loved an ain’t-shit man. No Christian way of putting it. There are two types of men in the world: men who are and men who ain’t about shit. …
A girl nowadays has to get nice and close to tell if her man ain’t shit and by then, it might be too late. We were girls once. It’s exciting, loving someone who can never love you back. Freeing, in its own way.
There’s comfort in the presence of these women who act as a stand-in for a god: they see, they pray, they acknowledge, they validate existence, but they (for the most part) refuse to intercede against an individual’s autonomy. As they explain late in the novel, “We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out.”