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Ordinary Black Lives Are What Matter In 'The Mothers'

Black lives matter — not only black deaths. But you wouldn't know it from paging through major publishers' catalogs. The publishing industry, despite all those solemn, virtuous panels on diversity, has thus far shown little interest in ordinary black lives. Black lives, families and stories matter — but they don't have a commensurate place in fiction.

The Mothers illustrates how rare major books that treat black families and friendships are, where racism and suffering are present in the story but not the entire story. Brit Bennett should not be exceptional, but she is; The Mothers has many strengths, but it is extraordinary for that one miserable fact. Here, at last, is a novel about ordinary black lives.

Mothered, motherless, mothered badly or well, wanting to be a mother, choosing not to be a mother — like most women, the women of The Mothers are in a lifelong, shifting and painful negotiation with motherhood. Even in absence, motherhood is the ghostly shaping presence around these female lives. Or, as a character about to have a baby thinks, "magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn't was a haunting."

The plot revolves around two best friends growing up in a black community in Southern California. Nadia is beautiful, wild, with "see-through" eyes. Aubrey is pious, careful, with a purity ring on her finger.

Nadia's mother killed herself before the start of the novel: "Her days felt like being handed from person to person like a baton, her calculus teacher passing her to her Spanish teacher to her chemistry teacher to her friends and back home to her parents. Then one day, her mother's hand was gone and she'd fallen, clattering to the floor."

'The Mothers' illustrates how rare major books that treat black families and friendships are, where racism and suffering are present in the story but not the entire story.

Aubrey, too, is "unmothered," but by choice. She left her mother and her mother's abusive boyfriend. Aubrey wonders "if they were the only ones who felt they didn't know their mothers. Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable." But they have their own reckonings with motherhood: Nadia gets pregnant by accident and has an abortion. And later, Aubrey tries very hard to get pregnant, and finally succeeds.

The Mothers relays with awful precision the fragility of flesh — suicide, sexual abuse, crashed cars, sports injuries, abortion. The ways the black men in this book have targets on their backs ("Reckless white boys become politicians and bankers, reckless black boys become dead," one character's mother thinks). But there, too, is the body's resilience: A soldier comes home, a man learns to walk again after an assault, a woman smiles after giving birth. ("Her body had split open, and she was smiling.") And then Bennett cycles back to pain: "Bones, like anything else, strong until they weren't."

The Mothers is good, moving and astute, but it could be much better. It's a book that makes much of other people's unknowability, but doesn't demonstrate it. What's not quite right is hard to understand, an absence rather than a concrete error, but I think it is this: The novel has a precise and unerring causal logic of event leading to predictable feeling. In real life, people feel and act unpredictably, inexplicably, and that is part of what makes books feel real — emotional unaccountability.

Here, everyone fulfills the précis of their characters exactly. Each character has one — but no more than one — distinguishing trait. Often, the trait is perfectly sketched: "Mrs. Sheppard, brusque and businesslike, was the type of person ... who would prefer to give a man a fish not only because she could catch a better one herself, but because she felt important being the only thing standing between that man and starvation." But in real life, we all embody 10 different people every 10 minutes. We defy ourselves.

And parts of the novel are narrated by a collective voice, a group of older church mothers who form a knowing and weary Greek chorus. It could work in another form, like a tragedy — some dense, elliptical, lyrical thing that doesn't pretend to be real life. But in a realist novel you can't evade the slightly sticky fact that groups of people don't speak or think in unison, and they don't have the same lived experiences. That gives those sections a kind of stage-direction inauthenticity: [townspeople shout]. The church mothers aren't people in their own right. And that is a failure in a book whose central theme is the heartbreaking insistence of our mothers on having their own unknowable lives.

Nevertheless, Bennett's failures are ones of experience, not talent or insight. It is very clear that she will only get better from here. And perhaps, next time, she won't be alone.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn
Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.