There’s a certain toxicity around notions of motherhood. I’m not a parent, but friends have spoken of the horrors of the internet forum Mumsnet, where everyone has 101 opinions on the only right way to raise children. The pressure on mothers is a particular and peculiar kind of scrutiny that fathers, by and large, escape from. It is mothers who are under the microscope, bound to societal expectations of unflinching devotion and dedication.
In Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, Blythe is all-too-aware of the immensity of parenthood. And whilst her husband, Fox, has a picture-perfect mother to model his own parenting on, Blythe comes from several generations of mothers who are at best absent, at worst abusive.
The narrative flips between the present in Blythe’s voice, and back through the generations as Blythe’s mother and grandmother chart the dysfunctional and disturbing accounts of their own childhoods.
‘We are all grown from something. We carry on the seed, and I was part of her garden.’
It doesn’t have to be the same for Blythe, though – does it? Putting her misgivings to one side, she and Fox have a baby girl, Violet. With the arrival of Violet, Blythe struggles to remember who she is – feeling that her life is now devoted to taking care of a baby who appears to love Fox but recoil from her touch. There’s an expectation gap separating the ideal – gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes – and the real, a baby who screams constantly. And it is this lack of a bond with Violet that Audrain explores unflinchingly throughout the novel. When the pair have another baby, and tragedy strikes, things spiral for them all.
‘Motherhood is like that – there is only the now. the pain of now, the relief of now. the despair of now, the hope.’
It was intriguing and refreshing to hear a story that isn’t often told; one that sheds light on a darker and likely more common than we’d think phenomenon. Audrain explores the guilt and shame that Blythe feels, and yet she is also an unreliable narrator. We are so deep into her psyche that we can’t help but question the way she sees her daughter. And yet by casting aspersions upon her lived experience, we are no better than the reams of people in her life who do not believe her, who silently brand her a hysterical woman, a bad mother.
The second-person narration in Blythe’s narrative, addressing her account to ‘you’, her husband Fox, is cleverly-done. I felt that the flashbacks to the accounts of her mother and grandmother were somewhat lacking – they felt like they slowed down the pace without providing us with that much insight, beyond ‘traumatic childhood.’ This is very much a psychological drama, rather than a thriller, and should be treated as such – don’t go into it expecting twists and turns, as major plot developments are few and far between – which doesn’t help with the pacing. I liked the novel for exploring a lesser-seen experience of motherhood, but felt that the reading experience was hampered by the pace and the lack of depth to the narrative.
With thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced review copy. The Push will be published by Penguin Michael Joseph on January 7th, 2021.