There are natural disasters so horrifying that they dominate the airways 24/7, high-jacking our consciousness and our everyday discourse. The 2004 tsunami was one such event. Yet in time, for most of us, inevitably if heartlessly, the terrible images faded and more mundane, immediate concerns again took precedence.
But what if the nightmare were to continue? BETWEEN A MOTHER AND HER CHILD is about a London family shorn of its oldest son, leaving some of its members frozen in shock and grief, unable to mourn and move on.
It is nearly two years after the tsunami when the novel opens, and the Barretts are still reeling from the death of 18-year-old Jake, who was traveling in Thailand when the wave hit. Bill moved out a year ago, an amicable separation; Maggie is all but sleepwalking through her days and nights, emotionally unreachable; their daughter, teenaged Aly, hides her pain beneath a good-student/good-daughter mask. Ten-year-old Stan is the only person whose life has actually improved in the past year. He suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia (I was familiar with the first but not the second, a neurological disorder leading to coordination problems), and he is flourishing in a special-needs school rather than bullied and unhappy, as before, in a mainstream classroom.
Bill, meanwhile, has recently made a fresh start, embarking on a love affair with the widowed Carrie --- they met in a bereavement group --- and breaking the uncomfortable news to Maggie and the kids. He is torn, wanting to allow himself happiness yet determined to reassure his “old” family that he is not abandoning them. (May I just say that the title is awkward as well as slightly unfair to fathers? After all, a good chunk of the book is devoted to Bill’s love for his children and his struggle to balance his own needs and theirs.)
In a parallel story of loss and despondency, 63-year-old Kate Miller is dealing with the sudden death of Philip, her cherished second husband. She seems on the surface to be coping better than Maggie, but only just. Reluctant to pretend to a normality she doesn’t feel, she avoids friends, yet she is terribly lonely. So she takes the daring step of placing an advertisement in the newspaper:
“Mature, healthy, solvent lady with own house seeks room in busy family home, in exchange for cooking, light housekeeping, company and, hopefully, some childcare.”
Maggie’s younger sister, Olivia, visiting from Australia, spots the ad and persuades the Barretts to try her out. Kate proves to be a healing presence in this scarred and miserable household, Mary Poppins as grief counselor and confidante. They, in turn, help Kate come to terms with a secret grief of her own: her estrangement from the grown daughter of a troubled first marriage.
Elizabeth Noble’s fiction has always been focused on the intimate tensions and connections that make marriage, friendship and parenthood work --- or flounder --- and BETWEEN A MOTHER AND HER CHILD is no exception. The difference is that in this case, perfectly ordinary people have been slammed by an extraordinary event. You can’t help weeping at the scene in which the Barretts endure the two-year anniversary of the tsunami --- the day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day in the UK --- with its collision of holiday and heartbreak.
"[W]hat I like about this novel is the homely idealism it embodies: the belief that, given time, tenacity and a little luck, the human spirit can overcome the most searing of losses."
What raises a book with such a melodramatic premise above soap opera is the characters, and while Noble’s are eminently likable, I don’t think she is consistently successful at making them specific and complex. For one thing, sometimes they lapse into predictable roles that resemble anecdotes from a self-help book (furtive teenager, sleepless mom, guilt-ridden dad). For another, Noble gives them little context beyond the family. Work, for example, is slighted: Bill is successful, but precisely what he does is vague; although Maggie is a gifted artist, producing Cornellian shadowboxes that trace the family’s history, her talent remains unexplored; Olivia’s position in the insurance business and Carrie’s as a magazine editor barely register. Third, they all seem remarkably privileged. Nobody in the book has money worries, is unattractive or uneducated, or --- except for Stan --- represents “otherness” in any meaningful way. The effect is a bit bland and insular.
Maggie is knottier than the rest, and she is also the character I cared about most. An Olympic-caliber swimmer as a young woman in her native Australia, she had always regarded water as an ally --- until Jake died in that giant wave. Ever since, she has had a recurrent dream that begins with the familiar joy of swimming, and then turns dark and disorienting and scary, as if she herself were caught in the tsunami. Water comes to seem like a dangerous element, and for two years she avoids it. But one day, on a trip to Australia for her sister’s wedding, she risks a dip with Stan in the hotel pool and rediscovers the skill “that came as naturally to her, even after all this time, as walking did…. Her body moved with the water, not against it. She felt suffused with calm….”
The swim is an important stage in Maggie’s reclaiming of her life and her future, and the water theme is helpful connective tissue in a novel that could sometimes use a little more cohesiveness. Actually, I think that if Noble had focused more on Maggie rather than distributed her attention so even-handedly among the other characters, this would be a tighter, stronger, and perhaps darker book.
Noble doesn’t write dark books, though, and her optimism is both her limitation and her strength. BETWEEN A MOTHER AND HER CHILD suggests implicitly that there is a more or less civilized way to survive the death of one’s son and the shattering of one’s marriage. I’m not sure it’s realistic to imagine that most people in such a situation would behave as relentlessly well as these characters do --- but it sure is comforting. I guess what I like about this novel is the homely idealism it embodies: the belief that, given time, tenacity and a little luck, the human spirit can overcome the most searing of losses.
As faiths go, it’s a pretty good one.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on September 13, 2013
Between a Mother and Her Child