First published back in September of 2013, ‘Mother, Mother’ formed the second book to be published by American writer Koren Zailckas – the first being her critically acclaimed memoir ‘Smashed’ (2005) which detailed Zailckas’ decade-long struggle with alcohol abuse.

DLS Synopsis:
Josephine Hurst didn’t so much rule the household as she did forcibly mould each and every one of the members of the family into exactly what she wanted them to be.  And this had eventually, and somewhat inevitably, led to the gradual collapse of the entire family unit.

However, the collapse all seemed to start from one particular point.  The night that twenty-year-old Rose ran away.  Now, after a whole year had passed, Rose was still out of their lives.  Although every now and again things would happen that Rose would get the blame for.  Like when Douglas’ car got keyed, or when something was found broken.  The finger would automatically be pointed at the absent girl.  The one who must undoubtedly have an axe to grind.  But no one ever saw her.

For twelve-year-old William Hurst, his mother was everything.  She was his protector.  The one he looked up to.  The one he loved and adored.  The single most important person in his life.  Josephine had been home-schooling Will ever since he received his dual diagnosis nine months ago.  It had taken a while, with visits to numerous specialists before Josephine was happy with the diagnosis.  But now she had something to hang on to.  Autistic spectrum disorder with comorbid epilepsy.  It was the key to his special attention.  It made him so much more vulnerable.  It made him need Josephine so much more.  It was perfect.

But William’s sixteen-year-old sister, Violet Hurst, was far from what Josephine wanted in a daughter.  Violet had begun a Sallekhana.  A Buddhist ritual of fasting that eventually leads to death.  But that was just one of a thousand disappointments that Josephine saw in Violet.   And it all came to a head the night that Violet had come home after ingesting poppy seeds as a natural narcotic.  The night that Will got hurt.  The night that led to Violet being admitted into Fallkill mental hospital.  The night that instigated the start of the family’s collapse…and very possibly, where all the lies could finally begin to fall away…

DLS Review:
Koren Zailckas’ novel is focussed entirely on the interaction between the Hurst family members, and most predominantly, Josephine’s stranglehold over the entire family unit.  Indeed, Josephine is a narcissist to the absolute nth degree.  She is a control freak, a near-compulsive liar, a manipulator and very possibly a self-obsessed sociopath.  And she makes life in the Hurst family very difficult indeed.

Throughout the length of the book the chapters alternate between the perspectives of Violet and William.  Violet’s role in the book is to break free from the oppressive turmoil that surrounds and dominates her family.  As such, Violet quickly becomes the principal protagonist to the tale.  The character the reader sides with, sympathises with and ultimately roots for.  On the other hand, you have William.  A young, incredibly misguided boy who is completely devoted to his dear mother.  He sees no wrong in her.  His life is one-hundred-percent dependent upon her.  And in him, it illustrates perfectly the controlling power of Josephine when she is able to get what she wants.  And this clever contrasting throughout the story works incredibly well.

‘Mother, Mother’ is one of those tales that gradually unveils snippets of information; slowly putting the jigsaw pieces together to finally form a complete picture.  As the novel begins the reader is introduced to the Hurst individually.  From here it’s easy to garner their respective positions in the family, and to begin to form an understanding about who they are.  Once this is done, the storyline moves on to focus upon the events surrounding one particular night.  The night that Will’s hand got cut and instigated Violet’s admittance into the mental hospital.  It’s a point that Zailckas returns to over and over again, taking the reader to it from various points, from both Violet and then Will’s perspectives, and only as the book begins to draw to a close, revealing the whole truth to what occurred.

It’s fair to say that ‘Mother, Mother’ is a bit of a slow burner.  Not much happens of any real note for quite some time. But it’s very much about the characters.  How they interact and tolerate Josephine.  How they try to cope with her demands.  How they skirt around her obsessions.  How they try to get by in an environment that’s constantly on the verge of explosion.  Indeed, the novel forms quite a thought-provoking examination of a dysfunctional family, the warning signs, the damage that one person can cause and the eventual repercussions for everyone involved.

There’s a great deal of purposeful misguiding and wrongful judging of characters.  Indeed, Zailckas uses this particular technique time and time again, and to great effect.  The end result is a novel that doesn’t exactly flow along a straight timeline, but rather goes over much of the same ground, gradually chipping away at the deception and misunderstanding until the reality of the matter is eventually exposed.

Yes, the novel can at times feel like it’s become directionless and trapped in its own stagnation.  But Zailckas does have a plan.  Even when the reader is treading over much the same ground, things are being revealed in far more clarity.  Truths are coming out, and Josephine’s real colours are slowly but surely being revealed for all to see.

It’s quite a downcast and bleak read.  However, there are numerous glimmers of hope and happiness that shine through the oppressive misery.  Furthermore, surprising elements of wit emerge from time to time, such as with the impressive array of little-known words with their respective definitions which Will adds to his chapters.

If you’re looking for a tale with a hell of an impact behind it then you’re not going to find what you want in ‘Mother, Mother’.  It’s not a story that hits the reader full in the face.  It’s not a tale that takes you on a journey or explodes with energy, action or a melee of snowballing events.  Instead it’s a novel that looks in at a plainly dysfunctional family unit and gradually peels back the layers until the real rotten core is exposed.

And in its own way, it works well.

The novel runs for a total of 366 pages.

© DLS Reviews


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