November 6, 2016
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
Of the many terrible consequences of abortion having been turned into an “issue”—a binary issue at that, a “debate”—is that the narratives have lost their meat. So caught up in the rhetoric, women become uncomfortable with the nuanced reality of the situation. And instead one is either for or against, pro or anti. Abortion is good or evil, a life-saver or murder. And what gets lost in all this opposition are the stories. That abortion is not an issue, but that it’s a fact of so many women’s lives, and it exists on a spectrum with a million degrees of experience.
In The Mothers, the debut novel by Brit Bennett—which has received all kinds of buzz and which I finally bought after hearing it praised over and over again, and I’m so glad I did—those experiences are explored over a half decade in the lives of three young people connected to an African-American church community in a coastal California town. Although it might be more accurate to say say that two of the three are disconnected— Nadia Turner’s mother had been a devout churchgoer, but she’d killed herself six months before Nadia gets herself knocked up by Luke, the wayward son of the preacher. There’s never a doubt in Nadia’s mind about what she must do—she’s got a scholarship to the University of Michigan, and this is her ticket out of a life as narrow and confining as her mother’s was, and she doesn’t want to relive her mother’s mistakes, who had Nadia when she was just 17. And so Nadia gets an abortion, setting herself back upon the path that she’d envisioned for herself. Though there is still a summer to get through before she can finally get away, and she’s forced into taking a job as the assistant to Luke’s mother. Spending more time at the church than she ever had before, she develops a friendship with Aubrey, a girl her age who joined the church after being rejected by her own mother (and fleeing abuse from her mother’s boyfriend). Both girls motherless then, and Nadia has rejected motherhood, and every chapter begins with a chorus of voices, “the mothers” from the church, women whom Barbara Pym would have termed as “excellent.” Unbeknownst to both girls, they are being watched over.
With sweeping narrative maneuvering, Bennett conducts this cast of people through years and great changes in their own lives. We see Nadia moving away and excelling in all the ways that had been imagined for her, and how she cannot manage to escape the decision she made to end her pregnancy, how she carries the experience with her. And how too it dwells within Luke, who fails to support Nadia properly, but then theirs had never been a proper relationship anyway, and as his life remains at a standstill, Nadia’s abortion comes to stand in for all the opportunities he has lost and a source of his pain. And for Aubrey too who becomes close to Luke and has her own pain that needs healing.
Bennett nicely situates the personal against the political, Nadia’s experience with anti-abortion politicking by church members (although not so avidly—these are reasonable people) and also about how one’s convictions become flexible when an unwanted pregnancy is a fact instead of an idea. She shows how a woman can choose an abortion and know it’s the right choice, but still mourn what she’s lost and wonder at the could-have-beens. That an abortion, like a lot of things that happen to people over the course of their lives, is a complicated, multi-faceted thing.
The Mothers was born out of Brit Bennett’s MFA thesis at the University of Michigan, and there were some edges of the narrative that whispered (but didn’t scream) to me: first book. Not in the usual sense—the story is substantial, developed, and written with deep empathy and understanding of the experiences of its characters. This book is solid. But I could also see how this is the work of a writer at the start of her career—some of the set-ups were familiar, the kind of thing that you read in a lot of first books, a seam or two visible. But that this could be both conspicuously a first book and be as ambitious as it is, and not only be reaching but be exceeding its grasp? How incredible is that?
The Mothers is an outstanding achievement, one of the best books I’ve read this year, the kind of book that leaves its reader waiting for whatever its author has coming up next.
(And in the meantime, read her essay, “I don’t know what to do with good white people.”)