‘The Almost Mothers’ Laura Besley
ISBN: 9781913624002, £7
Laura Besley’s book, ‘The Almost Mothers’, is a collection of twenty-seven flash fiction stories about motherhood. In taking us through a wide variety of narratives about women’s experiences of motherhood, Besley chips away at rosy myths, exploding taboos along the way, and sparing no punches about the challenges new mothers face in their daily lives. The impact of bearing and raising a child is portrayed as a life-changer for which women can be unprepared, and often misguided through. Frequently isolated and gas-lighted, her characters are taken to the limits of their physical and mental strengths. Along the way, we see pain, loneliness, confusion, sacrifice, anger, resentment, revolt, shame, but we also see love.
The backdrop is often the sanctity of motherhood, its indelible link to nature, mothers’ devotion, and the bliss of self-sacrifice. Failure to slip into these modes threatens the core identity of the woman as a fit mother and forces her into shame, embarrassment, and silence. In ‘Cut a Long Story Short’, for example, at the end of a whirlwind series of mishaps and frustrations, when asked how she is, the exhausted young mother chooses to hide her distress.
‘[You] do the opened mouth, closed mouth thing a couple of times trying to weigh up how honest to be and then say, fine, I’m fine.’
Where can young mothers turn? Their world can suddenly be empty of comfort. Besley explores this isolation, along with the feelings of inadequacy sanctioned by numerous actors. In ‘Breakthrough in Motherhood Programme’, it is a patronizing and deaf science and medicine, where, scientists erase the memory of motherhood in those they judge unfit. In ‘Not all Linings are Silver’ it is government, whose officials decide who should remember having given birth in the first place ‘for the women’s own good’, whereas, at the local level, Mrs Knight in ‘Unfit Mothers’ explains motherhood in pie charts and graphs. ‘Guilt Trip,’ brings us in Fairyland, as fairies conspire to spray guilt dust on earth-mothers to keep them going. It can even be the treachery of nature herself, as in the ‘Mother Contract’, where breast feeding is touted as ‘the most natural process in the world,’ against the new mother’s breast pain. On top of all this, of course, is that infertility is a curse (‘The Unmothers’). Nothing is spared from scrutiny and naivety has no place in ‘The Almost Mothers.’
This writing is not dogmatic, theoretical, or dry. Besley presents raw, deep emotions. Her characters are rich and full, and it is therefore easy for readers to empathise with their pain, excitement, failure, and love. The simplicity and familiarity of the plots draw us in: a teenage girl finds out she is pregnant, a woman reads a bed time story, and another is dropping her son at school.
The author’s language is vivid and evocative. An implication is said to be like ‘sticky peanut butter-covered fingers’;and a simile brings in a touch of humour, ‘Sheila wears so many bangles she is a walking percussionist.’ Stylistic tools of the trade, too, are deployed for impact. ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’, for instance, consists of a continuous two-page sentence that makes us experience lack of control and emotional confusion. By the end of the story, the reader is out of breath.
Besley is strongest when she takes her characters through deep emotional and gut-wrenching confrontations, as in ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’, and ‘The Apple’, whereas other stories feel rather more thematic and conceptual: ‘Down to Earth’ (aliens want to understand fertility), ‘Grow your Own Baby’ (a recipe for growing babies), ‘Supermum’ (the guru of motherhood), ‘Not All Linings are Silver’ (government memory-erasing programme). In the latter ones, the author is playful with ideas and brings some levity to her work, but compared to the former, these remain at the surface.
The writing in the collection can be somewhat uneven, however. Flash fiction is technically very demanding and requires a particular tightness in storytelling. Every word counts and contributes. In ‘The Almost Mothers’, some stories lack this economy. Openings can be somewhat disconnected or superfluous, and closings can remain enigmatic. But in comparison with the overall proficiency of her writing, these are peccadillos.
The book is honest, brave, and yields a powerful insight into unspoken aspects of motherhood, and into the culture of and around women. It is a strong pushback to the gloss-over of status quo that has not served women well so far.
Charline Poirier is an anthropologist. After a first career in technology design, she has turned to writing full time. She is working on her first novel, Majic’s Plan, as well as on a variety of short and flash fiction. Her stories have appeared in CommuterLit, Freedom Fiction, and Scarlet Leaf Review. She lives in London.