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review 2016-03-16 00:01
The Mothers - Rod Jones

An entire spectrum of sentiments and feelings can be associated with the word “mother.” One’s attempts at defining the term is strongly linked to one’s personal experiences, whether they be positive or negative. However by selecting the title, The Mothers, I would think that many readers would initially assume that the novel would describe a favorable position of motherhood…a kind of homage and celebration of a mother’s strength and fortitude in supporting her children’s wellbeing and welfare against any hardships that are faced. If by looking at the title alone and thinking that the novel might make a promising Mother’s Day gift, it might not invoke the positive reaction you were seeking.


The novel chronicles four generations of mothers, from World War I to the 1990s, all of whom eventually become part of an interconnected family. The author Rod Jones firmly entrenches his novel within a historical context. The four generations of women are set in a background of varying levels of political, social and environmental calm and upheaval. However, all of the women he describes are somehow emotionally distanced from these periods of change; their reactions to situations are remarkably similar despite the social differences occurring during their respective timelines. This similarity does a disservice to the stories of these women, who ultimately seem products of an older generation in regards to their relationships with their children and, more importantly, their men.


Despite the novel’s title, The Mothers strongly focuses on the women’s relationships with men, rather than their relationships with their children. At times, it almost feels as if the title The Mothers is a misnomer. In truth, the novel assumes the old-fashioned belief that children are better seen and not heard. At various points in the story, the reader can “see” the children out playing, attending school or going to work. Other times, the children are actually visually absent from the story because they haven’t yet been born. For the most part, the children are not involved in the active verbal conflicts associated with the four main female protagonists, which creates a noticeable distance between mother and child in all four sections of the novel.


Additionally, even though the author introduces some themes associated with these children, they are not fully realized over the course of the novel due to the story transitions. For example, two of the children who are introduced in the first section of the novel, essentially disappear in the other sections when the author shifts focus to new storylines. Though these children do make brief appearances in the later sections, the themes that were initially introduced, namely Teddy’s emotional reticence and growing sense of disappointment and loss are quietly forgotten.


There is minimal verbal interaction between mother and child across the novel; and at some points, the mothers seemingly want to distance themselves from addressing any potential conflict with their children. For these mothers, such crisis moments are best resolved by sending the child away, offering the child phenobarbitals, or potentially considering imposing a forced separation between herself and the child. Ultimately, it becomes apparent to the reader that it is not really the women’s role as a mother that drives their decision making, but it is the the male figures in their lives that truly guide the choices they make as mothers. 


The four mothers of this novel lack a strong, independent will, and are heavily dependent upon the assistance of men. When this dependence is severed, the women are cast adrift, either looking to the past to find grains of comfort, or to seek some other male replacement, whether consciously or unconsciously, to fill that empty void, rather than attempt a life of independence with their children. Such choices are made regardless of the relative danger and instability associated with making such a choice, both for themselves and for their children. 


The first mother to whom the reader is introduced actually describes her hesitance in wanting to accept charity, yet she does not actively consider looking for a job, even the most menial position. She ultimately elicits the help of two other men. The second mother is described as being rather childlike in demeanor, and is heavily dependent upon her husband for support and assistance. Arguably, it almost seems as if the male figure in this particular relationship assumes a mother bird-like protectiveness. At a later point in the novel when this woman becomes a widow, she is described as being “still stuck back in 1969, where the solid road of her family life had come to a sudden end.” In another section of the story, the empty void is so extreme that this mother resorts to turning Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnut character in The African Queen into a god-like figure to whom she prays for assistance and strength. This woman eventually again relies on the advice and guidance of another man to determine the course of action she should take when provided with the opportunity of resuming a relationship with a lost child. The final mother figure to whom the reader is introduced is shockingly passive and submissive, which is a blatant contrast to the 1970s women’s liberation timeframe in which she is living. Her partner is emotionally abusive and distant, yet since he is the father of her unborn child, she cannot envision a life separate from his. All in all, the four stories that the author describes force the reader to question the degree of responsibility these women have in their role as mothers. 


In the book’s favor, Rod Jones’ novel does provide a distinctive voice for each of the mothers he describes. Each of the four sections employ a subtle technical change in style that is reflective of the character traits of the four mothers. The first section is a story that is plainly told, which reflects the dispassionate nature of the first mother he describes. The second section assumes a simple, unadorned way of writing. Description is minimal and lacks an imaginative maturity that is reflective of the mother he describes. It is rather difficult for the reader to learn much about this woman based upon what is described, other than this woman’s childhood fears, fears that she also extends to her understanding of others. The third section adopts a dreamlike stream of consciousness. Of the four sections, the author provides a tone that is arguably almost affectionate and sympathetic in its description. The situation in which this mother is placed is hopeless, yet it hints at a potential sense of healing that contrasts the growing sense of absurdity that follows her train of thoughts as her story progresses. The fourth section in contrast lacks a true sense of hopefulness, and is instead a study of negative contrasts and dichotomies. Despite this mother’s lack of advanced education, her story is replete with astute, intelligent commentary. However she seemingly fails to apply this intelligence to herself and her own situation. She remains blindingly optimistic despite the many warning signs that come her way.


When reflecting upon Rod Jones’ novel as a whole, his novel does have technical merits in its tone and section construction. However when the reader breaks down the stories he describes in their most basic form, the novel is essentially four retellings of the same tale: a woman who needs a male figure in her life to help balance her responsibilities and duties as a mother. The underlying message Jones leaves his readers is not entirely favorable; and with the knowledge that the novel is semi-autobiographical, one wonders what Jones is really trying to say here.


Copy provided by NetGalley

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