Much like the Southern Californian communities in which it takes place, Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers (Riverhead Books), is deceptively buoyant. Reading through it for the first time, readers are likely to find themselves seduced by its prose. Its surface is serene and appealing, carried forward by a brisk narrative. But like Southern California, this novel’s pleasant surface begins to ripple the more you linger over it, eventually giving way to something far more nuanced and disturbing than its façade let on.
The Mothers follows Nadia Turner in the aftermath of her mother Elise’s suicide and her father Robert’s subsequent depression. Nadia seeks comfort in Luke Sheppard’s bed, and she eventually becomes pregnant by the preacher’s son. Fearing that she might reprise the tragedy of her mother’s life — Elise Turner mothered Nadia at a similarly young age — she aborts the child under the impression that she and Luke are the only ones who know what she’s done.
Unbeknownst to her, Luke’s parents — who run Upper Room, the church to which Nadia and her father belong — provided the money for the abortion. The rest of the novel traces the paths Luke and Nadia’s young lives take as they mature, suffer heartbreaks, and go on to build new lives as adults. Still, no matter how far from home they travel, or how much they strain to construct new homes, their decision’s consequences echo through their lives, organizing their stories in ways they perceive only dimly. Though Luke marries Nadia’s friend Aubrey Evans, and Nadia finds success at the University of Michigan, the pressure of their shared secret compounds until the lives they’ve built threaten to collapse beneath it.
This novel’s narrative is sparse, turning on this secret and not much else. The power and pleasure of Bennett’s writing lies in her prose style’s clarifying precision. Her knack for capturing concrete aspects of life in Southern California — more specifically, an African-American California — is especially gratifying, giving life to a region too often represented in broad strokes, and a culture too often overlooked. Bennett evokes a sense of place via a sparing economy. In her Southern California, scorching wildfires arrive with seasonal regularity a la Joan Didion; black kids party with sandy-haired white skaters at claustrophobic kickbacks where received notions of contemporary race relations scarcely seem to apply; and a peculiar Californian brand of inequality persists, the kind that enables a city to encompass idyllic beaches on the one hand and bulletproofed fast food restaurants on the other.
Ultimately, though, The Mothers is not a regional novel; it’s more interested in its characters’ internal lives than where they live. Bennett illuminates their psychologies with the same delicate sense of economy, probing for the ways that their experiences produce complex emotional states only a fraction of which are known to one another — or even to themselves. Bennett’s characters struggle to know one another while navigating a morass of regret, bitterness, and desire; the result is a drama of feeling that explores how trauma shapes the contours of our lives and delineates the limits to our intimacy.
In one poignant scene, as Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship begins to bud in the abortion’s aftermath, Nadia conducts what she thinks is a harmless inquiry into Aubrey’s sexual history:
‘Just don’t expect [sex] to be all beautiful and romantic. It’s gonna be awkward as hell.’
‘Why does it have to be awkward?’
‘Because – look, has any guy ever seen you naked?’
Now Aubrey opened her eyes. ‘What?’ she said.
‘I mean, what’s the furthest you’ve ever gone?’
‘I don’t know. Kissing, I guess.’
‘Jesus Christ. You’ve never even let a guy feel you up?’
Aubrey shut her eyes again. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Can we talk about something else?’
For Nadia, this is just gentle ribbing. What she never learns is that Aubrey has suffered a sexual abuse at her stepfather’s hands, abuse that has made it difficult to trust other people with her body. Others (including Luke, her eventual husband) repeat the mistake throughout the novel, mistaking Aubrey’s discomfort with talking about her body for Christian prudishness. They repeatedly create an insurmountable obstacle to intimacy that none of them can even begin to perceive. Elise Turner’s suicide reinforces this, emphasizing for Nadia that she could never access the regrets that haunted her mother’s life, and therefore never knew her mother at all.
So it’s hard not to read this novel’s title and central conceit as a jab at the notion of intimacy itself. The titular Mothers of Upper Room church narrate Nadia’s story, framing her life as the sum total of church gossip. They pass summary judgment on Nadia and her mother from their position of would-be omniscience, but what Bennett ultimately highlights is the poverty of their knowledge. Encountering an emotionally disturbed Elise in the church one morning, they laugh the incident away, already greedy for the gossip that the incident affords: “Oh, wait til we told the ladies at bingo about this. Elise Turner, asleep in the church like an ordinary bum. They would have a field day with that one.”
This is not to say that the novel doesn’t gesture towards issues of wider societal import. After all, Bennett’s incisive essays on racial injustice, buoyed up by outrage over anti-black police violence, are what brought her to prominence. I’ve been trying my best to avoid Donald Trump for the last month, but this book arrives in the atmosphere of generalized traumatization and misogyny that his presidential campaign has engendered. It’s difficult not to read Aubrey’s suffering as an important attempt to narrate not just the political but also the personal repercussions of such violence, how it can scar an individual for life. The massive reality TV show that is this presidential campaign threatens to obscure that knowledge, and I find myself grateful to Bennett for reminding us.
Elsewhere, we find black mothers instructing their sons to avoid recklessness: “Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless…Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” Later in the novel, Robert Turner remembers the lessons of his father: “Black boys are target practice…My pops told me, you better learn to shoot before these white men shoot you, and I did.” Bennett even takes time to probe the impoverished emotional lives that men lead. When Luke tries to discuss his pain over Nadia’s abortion to his friend CJ, all CJ can muster is jock bravado. “Well shit,” he says, “You got lucky, homie.”
Ultimately, though, this novel’s heart lies in the struggle to move beyond the impasse Bennett so skillfully illustrates, and how that struggle so often backfires. After confronting Luke about the abortion, Nadia goes to Aubrey for comfort. Under the guise of teaching Nadia how to shoot pool, Aubrey embraces her:
She patiently guided her through the basics, then stood behind her to correct her stance. Aubrey’s hair tickled the back of her neck as she guided her hand back for her first stroke. Nadia wanted to feel the soft, constant pressure of another person’s touch. She wanted Aubrey to hold her, even if it was a fake embrace.
“Can you show me again?” she said.
This moment’s queer overtones speak not so much to sexual desire as the wish for a closeness that our normal conceptions of friendship and romance cannot comprehend. Reading this passage, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of the scene where Lily Briscoe wraps arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s legs:
Sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsey would never know the reason for that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public.
Facing this impasse, all Lily can do is press closer and hope. It’s a lesson Brit Bennett has absorbed.