Oh, the monstrous mothers of literature! Medea, Queen Gertrude, Charlotte Haze, Eleanor Melrose, the Leda who abandons her children in Elena Ferrante The lost girlthe retained matriarchs of Elizabeth Strout’s novels, the quasi-filicides of Mary Karr The Liars Club.
At first it seems that Catherine in Violaine Huisman’s deliciously written debut novel, Mother’s Book, will be a candidate for this list. The novel, which won multiple awards when it was first published in France in 2018 under the title Fugitive because queen, has been beautifully translated by Leslie Camhi for the 2021 US release.
The main character, Catherine (or Maman for her two daughters), is everything a mother isn’t supposed to be: by turns abusive and affectionate, difficult, rude, irresponsible, self-centered, erratic, drug addicted and mentally ill. . Fiction often treats these mothers as villains or, if the mother is a victim herself, with grudging empathy.
Violaine Huisman’s approach is however different, prismatic, since she considers Catherine from the three different points of view that form parts 1, 2 and 3 of this short work of autofiction. Initially, Huisman describes the year when she was ten years old and her mother suffered a breakdown following the breakdown of a marriage. She yells at Huisman, “You self-righteous little shit, if only you knew everything I’ve done for you!” Ungrateful! Mom’s favorite phrase is “Fuck off!” As gruesome as Catherine’s tirades are, Huisman and her older sister are in agony when she disappears for an extended stay in a mental hospital.
Rather than dismissing her mother, as so many others have done, Huisman uses Part 2 to omnisciently chronicle Catherine’s life. “To give shape to (my mother),” writes Huisman at the end of the first part, “I had to imagine her, interpret her. I had to become the narrator of her story to give her back her humanity.
Huisman’s novel closely follows the details of Catherine and Huisman’s biographies, but it is not a verifiable document. In interviews, Huisman speaks of “real” truth as being too chaotic to shape into narrative and of memory as always being partial fiction. She uses her own names, those of her sister, and her mother throughout, but makes up some things, including the names of most of the other characters.
From the start, Catherine’s story is dark, her conception resulting from a rape. As a teenager, Catherine’s mother is violently attacked by her date in an alley. Wanting to avoid the shame of the next pregnancy, Catherine’s grandparents force their daughter to marry her rapist. Perhaps as a result, Catherine’s mother hates her child, and Catherine (subsequently too raped by her father) grows up unloved and damaged by lack of care. She is abused by other authority figures and (again) bullied by men, her extraordinary beauty proving more of a liability than an asset.
Catherine’s missteps add to her problems. Despite an initially happy first marriage and success as a dance teacher, Catherine accepts a different man’s promise of economic comfort and new life experiences. This choice leads to adventures but also the first of many traumatic upheavals.
The final third of the book returns to Huisman’s point of view but fast forwards to Huisman’s adulthood in Brooklyn, when she lives away from her mother. Upon hearing of his mother’s death, Huisman leaves with his sister for Senegal to take care of business and get one last glimpse into his “impossible” and “irresistible” mother’s life.
At the end, Mother’s Book reads more like a love letter than I accuse. Catherine was troubled but magnetic, independent but a victim of the worst violent male impulses. Huisman’s deep compassion, despite what she suffered at her mother’s hands, is both moving and shocking, as if Medea’s sons came back from the dead to say, “Actually, I get it. I understand why she did that. While we might not wish all murderers were so exonerated, it’s hard not to wish that more mothers were so well understood.
Debra Spark the most recent books are And Then Something Happened: Essays on Writing Fiction and the novel Unknown caller. She co-edited Breaking Bread: Writers from New England on Food, Hunger and Family, due out Spring 2022. She teaches at Colby College and in Warren Wilson’s MFA for Writers program.