Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth (book review).

One thing that is often missing from novels is the problem of bodily fluids. A short story usually hasn’t the space to give them consideration. In older fiction, nobody ever went to the toilet, especially not female characters. As plots began to become more realistic, it tended to be the uncouth who had to take a trip to the bushes or who relieved themselves in an alley. It wasn’t mentioned in polite society. While genre novels may be more comfortable with blood and sex than they used to be, the issue of the functions of women’s bodies is still largely secretive. ‘Motherthing’ doesn’t hide anything. The question is more is this a genre novel?

Abbey, the first person narrator, is ditzy. After having a series of short relationships, she finally meets Ralph Lamb and they fall for each other. He is a stabilising factor in her life and, under normal circumstances, they would have settled down to be an ordinary couple. Unfortunately, Ralph’s mother is seriously unstable. Abbey would really like Laura to accept her, but despises the woman Ralph has chosen. Laura is the kind of woman who thinks she should be at the centre of Ralph’s universe, a totally different outlook to that which Abbey’s mother took. For her, Abbey was a nuisance.

The situation could probably have been coped with except that Laura’s mental health deteriorated and Ralph felt it necessary to move back home to care for her and Abbey acquiesced because she wanted Ralph to be happy. Then Laura kills herself.

The bulk of the novel is the attempt of Ralph and Abbey to cope with the situation and their different reactions. For Ralph, it is not just grief but the idea that he was unable to save his mother. He spirals into a depression that nothing seems to be able to penetrate. Abbey wants to find a way of bringing Ralph back to her. Both of them are convinced that Laura is haunting them. Her presence in the house is still tangible, both see and hear her. She cannot let go of Ralph. Abbey is also feeling guilty, not just because she didn’t like her mother-in-law but also because she stole Laura’s ring as she lay dying, a ring that Ralph said was going would be an engagement gift.

Abbey’s desire is to save her husband and get their relationship back on track is complicated because she doesn’t know how. Because of her relationship with her own mother, she had been looking for a substitute. As a child, the sofa in her home was the motherthing, a substitute for a real mother. At work, she is a care assistant in a residential home. One of the clients, Mrs Bondy, is someone she gives special attention to. Mrs Bondy is another motherthing and Abbey is distressed when she realises that her daughter wants to move her to a cheaper care home.

The novel is told as stream of consciousness. Abby’s narrative hops from topic to topic and she leaves nothing out. She believes that if she becomes a mother herself it will rally Ralph out of his depression. All bodily fluids get described including menstrual flow.

Some of the sections are written in script format suggesting that these are Abbey’s imaginings and they are how she scenes playing out.

So, is it fantasy? Only in the respect that much of it is in Abbey’s head. Grief and guilt in the part of both Abbey and Ralph could explain the things they see and hear. What it doesn’t shy away from is the everyday issues many women have to deal with. If you are squeamish at the thought of discussing female bodily fluids, then this book is not for you, however, it is a reminder that real life is not so clean and simple as many novels would have us think.

Pauline Morgan

February 2023

(pub: Vintage Books, New York, 2022. 273 page enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US), £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-46702-2)

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