I would like to thank Net Galley and Carina UK for my copy of ‘The Good Mother’ by A.L. Bird in exchange for my review.
Imagine waking up in a strange room with no idea of where you are or how you came to be there. Imagine trying to open the door, only to find it has been locked from inside and that you are trapped. Imagine knowing that your precious daughter is in a room next door but that you have no way or reaching her to provide her comfort. That you do not recognise your captor but you know that he knows you and wants something from you, something more than just a ransom. That aside from a few notes you are able to pass to your daughter through a grate which lies in the wall separating the two rooms, some brief exchanges of conversation between you and the man holding your prisoner, all you have is time, space and the distant memories echoing around in your head.
This is what has happened to Susan, the main protagonist in ‘The Good Mother’. The book is told largely from her point of view, with the occasional interlude which offers us the thoughts of the ‘captor’ and Alice, the childhood friend of Susan’s daughter, Cara. The two women, Susan and Cara are trapped and for much of the novel, there is no clear reason as to why this might be. There is talk of money, of a mysterious other man, ‘Mr Belvoir’, that hints at this being a question of ransom, but more than anything the feeling you get is that the ‘captor’ wants Susan to stay with him, that he has an obsession with her and a determination to make her love him. The story itself is full of twists with nothing quite as it seems, including his motivation for taking Susan, or his determination to keep her and her daughter apart. Other than him allowing her to kiss him, there is no hint that he intends to assault Susan or Cara, praying instead that she falls in love with him of her own accord.
The premise of the story therefore, is very intriguing. Who is the captor? What does he really want from Susan and Cara? What is the secret Alice was hiding for Cara and how does Mr Belvoir fit in? Was he hired by Susan’s husband Paul to find the missing pair or is there something more sinister about him too?
However, as much as the story idea is good, I struggled with this book, both in deciding whether I liked it and whether the styling worked in terms of engaging the reader. The prose is written in a short, staccato style, quite abrupt at times and difficult to hold the flow. Yes, this is mostly an interior monologue as it were, Susan’s thoughts as she tries to understand what is happening to her, but the same style is applied when the point of view switches to both the captor and Alice, both of whom have a much clearer picture of what is going on. Of course this will be to create tension, you don’t want to know quite what is happening too soon as it will spoil the ending, but you would expect more of a flow, particularly of the captor who has less reason to be in the panicked mind set of Susan.
It is with Susan that I possibly have the most issue. As the main character in the story, and perhaps from the way in which the prose is styled, I struggled to like this character. With the action taking place mostly in her head, it is difficult to build a rounded picture of her and I found the obsession with her daughter to be too much, although there are hints throughout the text as to why this is the case. That said, this made it hard for me to feel any sympathy towards her plight, in spite of the fact she was a woman in an untenable position under great duress. For a story dominated by monologue to work, you need to really be invested in the character and I wasn’t. So to my mind, if you cannot connect with a character you need a really strong plot instead, but due to the way the story was written, the reasons behind the abduction were not clear until right at the end, making it a process of Susan reminiscing about wonderful days out with her darling Cara and varying trips to the bathroom.
The reason I struggled with this book is possibly the reason that, on some level, it also works. As you near the end, the motivations become clear and there is a twist in the tale which, in hindsight, has been hinted at throughout. Her obsession with her daughter, the familiarity of her captor, the snippets of memories which interject her thoughts, all lead you to your final understanding of what has happened. And in this case, the reason for the stream of consciousness styled writing also becomes clear. My only fear is that by the time this becomes clear to the reader, they may already be too detached to really care.
This was a 3.5 star kind of book for me. I neither hated nor loved it. The writing was good, the descriptions solid, I just really struggled with the style.