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Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAinslie Hogarth’s Motherthing is a scathing black comedy that constantly subverts your expectations while delivering a story that is often as morbidly funny as it is tense and shocking. On the surface, it’s the latest story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But it slowly peels back the layers to reveal what’s really lurking beneath.

Have you noticed how many horror stories center on mothers and motherhood? Whether it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, or the original Friday the 13th, or more recent tales of maternal crisis like The Babadook or Hereditary or Laurel Hightower’s novella Crossroads, there’s something about the fact that there’s no relationship you’ll ever have in your life so profoundly impactful (whether you’re the mother or the child) that feeds directly into the horror genre’s unique capacity for empathy, and the way it helps us process trauma through art. Kate Bush once told us that mother stands for comfort, which is all well and good if you’re lucky enough to have Kate Bush for a mother. But just as there’s nothing you could probably treasure more than a close bond with a loving mom, when the mother/child relationship is a broken thing, there’s nothing that can leave a deeper scar.

Abby and Ralph are a couple whose lives have been overturned by Ralph’s clinically depressed, controlling harridan of a mother, Laura, who makes them move into her tatty old house to take care of her, and then performs her ultimate guilt trip by slashing her wrists in the basement. In life, Laura was passive-aggressive towards Abby in the tradition of all petty mothers-in-law who resent the fact their son has a new woman in his life. And now her death is, not surprisingly, causing Ralph to spiral. He has taken on Laura’s depression as if it was something left to him in the will. He barely eats, won’t even shower, and is convinced Laura’s ghost is lurking in the basement.

It is left to Abby to try to maintain any sense of family normality. This won’t be easy, because as we quickly figure out from her chatty and increasingly manic first-person narration, Abby is no great shakes in the mental health department either. For all of Laura’s faults, Abby’s own mother was certifiably the worst, an addiction-prone, emotionally imbalanced disaster who focused all her attentions onto an endless parade of toxic boyfriends.

The book’s title has a double meaning. A “motherthing” refers to the way a lost or lonely child who is undergoing failure to thrive will draw the maternal comfort it needs from anywhere it can. We’ve all seen those pitiful pictures of lab monkeys clinging to a doll made of chickenwire. As a little girl, Abby literally clung to a dirty old couch. But a motherthing can also refer to just plain awful mothers — mothers who abuse, and neglect, and abandon, and leave their adult children with an entire Land’s End Catalog of dysfunction and neurosis.

Abby is obsessed with saving her marriage to Ralph by becoming the perfect mother herself. She even imagines herself to be pregnant with a daughter, whom she has already named Cal, a perfect daughter who will grow up to save the world. When Abby gets her period, she isn’t fazed, until a coworker announces her own pregnancy, and Abby wrestles with jealousy and dark thoughts. Abby works at a senior care facility, where she has developed an unprofessional (to put it mildly) emotional attachment to one of the residents, Mrs. Bondy, onto whom she is projecting both her need for a motherthing and for a child to care for. Abby thinks of Mrs. Bondy as her baby, which is weird enough, and it’s definitely something that causes conflict whenever Mrs. Bondy’s real daughter, Janet, comes to visit.

There are predictable, even clichéd ways in which a story like this usually plays out. Anticipating The Shining’s formula, we watch everything unfold, waiting for the shoe-drop when our protagonist finally unravels altogether in an orgy of bloodshed. But Hogarth manages to keep us questioning our assumptions. She gives Abby’s narrative voice so many layers. Abby’s often hilarious. Other times she’s tender. Her memories of childhood are wrenching, sometimes so much so that she dissociates, and these passages are written in movie script format, as if Abby can only bear to confront certain things if she imagines herself watching them on a screen. There is a banger of a climax, and it goes as hard as anything I’ve read, but not in the way we’re expecting. And if I have spent this review making Motherthing sound like the bleakest exercise in misery you could possibly endure, Hogarth saves her most subversive move for last and sends us, and Abby, off with… a happy ending? Now that’s crazy!