Published by Crown
Publication date: September 17th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Suspense
Koren Zailckas doesn’t waste any time. In her first novel Mother, Mother: A Novel she takes no more than one hundred pages to pull the mask off Josephine Hurst, a woman who believes she is the pinnacle of modern motherhood—raising two lovely daughters (one destined for Broadway) and a son so gifted she has to home school him. Whether this is true or not seems beside the point to Josephine—it is what she believes. Unfortunately for her, Zailckas’ brilliantly schizophrenic prose shows otherwise and by page 120 I had developed a nervous tic from Josephine’s soft smiles followed by psychological torment the North Koreans would admire. She is a jackhammer against the concrete of her children’s sanity.
The intensity vibrates from Zailckas’ writing. Josephine has ensconced herself so firmly in the role of matriarch that getting to the bottom of her twisted psyche is a task beyond her husband, who secretly attends AA meetings because his life is such hell but, rather than expose that weakness, lets everyone think he’s having an affair. The oldest daughter, Rose has run off to NYC with her mysterious boyfriend in an attempt to have a life of her own and Violet, the second daughter is in a mental institution after ingesting some all-natural herbs that were supposed to provide the high of LSD without the side effects. While high there is a huge family fight and the youngest, twelve-year-old Will, gets his hand slashed. Due to his epilepsy, Violet’s altered state, and their father’s blackout (relapse into drinking), Josephine provides the only script for what transpired and it plays Violet as a psychopath who hates her brother. In order to protect him, Josephine has to check Violet into a psych ward.
One would expect, with Josephine’s delusions of grandeur, that she tells her own story, but instead Mother Mother is divided by chapter into two viewpoints: Violet and Will. Zailckas seems to know that letting us into Josephine’s head would end in a psychotic break for the most levelheaded reader so she leaves it to the rebellious (but ultimately very sane) Violet and the ‘laden with disabling diagnoses but brilliant’ Will, to render the story as best they can. She enhances the disparity between the two children by writing in short chapters that bounce between the Hurst household, where Josephine dotes on her loving son, the only one of her children not to betray her, and the hospital where Violet is trying to find reality and get someone to listen to her.
“Mom rifles through other people’s stuff but she’s totally unwilling to look at her own baggage.”
Mother Mother is relentless and twisted and that is as a compliment. It is a read-in-less-than-24-hours book, just so you can get your life back. There are novels that let the reader lead by creating a structure that functions as an aid to the imagination. Then there are those that grab the reader and thrust them headlong into the story without the ability to leave. In essence, the story is imprinted onto the mind and becomes less about reading and more about absorbing. Mother Mother is in this style. Zailckas leaves nothing to chance but comes out strong with words and sentences that are jagged, scrambled, harsh. There is nothing to ponder, this is happening and you are observing it. For some, this makes for uncomfortable reading and Mother Mother may not be their cup of tea but for those who like full immersion psychological suspense (ala Gone Girl) it works and works well enough to creep you out and leave you that way long after you’ve finished reading. Oh, and you’ll want to hug your mother and say thank you for being such a great mom.