- The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, is a compelling story that draws the reader into the world of a tight-knit community in coastal California. Like many examples of contemporary fiction involving youth, the narrative rests on intrigue, staccato dialogue, troubled characters (some more developed than others), toxic romantic relationships, and oblivious adults. On the surface, the novel is about Nadia Turner, a high school senior growing up in Oceanside. Nadia is smart, beautiful, determined, but emotionally troubled. Her mother, Elise, recently committed suicide for unknown reasons, and to numb the pain her father immerses himself in the church community. Nadia is left to pick up the pieces on her own and prepare to enter college in Michigan. During this time she clings to peers who give her much-needed romantic attention (Luke Sheppard) and friendship (Aubrey Evans). However, while sorting through the various parts of her life she makes a personal decision that affects everyone around her, long after she has departed for college.
While the narrative focuses largely on Nadia Turner’s life, we learn from the book’s opening lines that this story is not only Nadia’s to tell. And this is where the author proves her brilliance. Bennett taps into the lives and experiences of a group normally overlooked in American fiction—the conservative, middle-class Black western community. Bennett depicts Oceanside as populated with diverse working-and middle-class families. Many have newly relocated to the area because of the nearby military base (Camp [End Page 139] Pendleton), and others, like the families central to the novel, have been residents for several decades, attracted to stability and social freedom. The networks in the community are connected through the church, which serves as a place of refuge and a meeting place for new residents.
Bennett masterfully blends the messiness of older gossiping “church folk” with origin stories that hint at California’s promise as “paradise” for one and all. As in Walter Moseley’s southern California, Bennett’s adult African American characters all come from somewhere else. Bennett’s specific focus, however, on the millennial generation, who have “never lived outside California, never gone on exciting vacations, never left the country,” provides the reader with a different, contemporary perspective (70). Important to the novel is Bennett’s rejection of a stereotypical setting. Instead, The Mothers is as much about the banality of growing up in a California that is not San Francisco or Los Angeles as it is about characters’ choices.
In The Mothers, women’s intimate decisions drive the novel’s action and conflict, partly because they contradict the community’s perceptions. For example, Elise is regarded as a doting wife and mother, while her daughter is a studious, obedient child. Aubrey is a naïve, God-fearing proselyte, and the church mothers she adores are aged, protective, and wise. But we learn all the women have secrets and wrestle with inner turmoil resulting in extreme choices, loss, and regret. As the novel progresses, other characters begin to reveal hidden pasts that also belie popular opinion. The Mothers maintains a healthy dose of suspense due to several twists, while the initial introduction of ancillary characters proves important at later points in the novel. Bennett is impressive in her ability to hook readers with tidbits of information that require us to turn the page. Although much is revealed fairly early in the novel, Bennett makes us want to know what happens after.
As a storyteller, Bennett’s literary influences are clear. She uses the “we” collective narrator, a nod to luminaries like Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison, and certain phrasing is reminiscent of the sensory descriptors present in folk speech (e.g., “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them” ). But again, [End Page 140] Bennett does not rely solely on dated approaches to writing fiction. The Mothers always feels very current and relevant—because it is. Bennett also rejects the urge to provide an unnatural conclusion. No...