Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

Part mystery, part family drama, Mother, Mother is the first novel by Koren Zailckas, formerly best known for Smashed, a memoir of her years as a troubled teenage alcoholic. As you might imagine, then, Mother, Mother's Hurst family is a far from functional one. Eldest daughter Rose has abandoned a promising acting career to run away with a secret boyfriend, younger daughter Violet, 16, has been committed to a psychiatric ward, and 12-year-old Will has epilepsy and Asperger's and has to be home-schooled. Father Douglas Hurst is mild-mannered and ineffectual, so it's mother Josephine who appears to hold the family together. It's only as the story unfolds that it becomes obvious that Josephine is the problem, not the solution.

In some ways Mother, Mother reminds me of Gone Girl, in that it's one of those books where few relationships are healthy and nobody can be trusted. It's clear early on that Josephine's motives are twisted and even sinister, but is she the only one in the family with secrets - who is the 'Carrie' who has clandestine phone conversations with Douglas? How much does Will really remember about the incident in which he was injured while Violet was high on homemade hallucinogens? 

Zailckas tells the Hursts's story from the alternating points of view of Violet (volatile, self-destructive, antagonistic) and Will (anxious, immature, dependent). The directions their stories take are fascinating and sometimes unexpected, although at times I did feel as if I was reading extracts from a psychology textbook, particularly in Violet's scenes with her therapist and fellow inmates in a mental hospital. I also didn't feel especially surprised by a couple of the major revelations in the story, and I think it's fair to say that towards the end of the book, everything gets just a little overblown and borderline camp: at times Josephine strays dangerously to close to Mommie Dearest territory. This is, admittedly, highly entertaining, but the novel is strongest not at these moments. It's most effective when Josephine's behaviour is just sufficiently 'off' to make us question our own judgement - particularly when it comes to her relationship with Will.

While she's wholly memorable, Josephine is actually the least three-dimensional character in the book, simply because her life is so full of artifice, calculation and self-delusion. Even Douglas, fundamentally weak as a parent but nonetheless apparently keen to do his best, is curiously more 'real' to me than Josephine, however terrifying (and, by-and-large, plausible) she might be.

The publisher's blurb compares Mother, Mother to the work of Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, and while I see where they're coming from, I don't think Koren Zailckas is competition for those two mistresses of suspense - not yet, anyway. But Mother, Mother is always gripping and often chilling, and is full of shrewd psychological insight that makes it a fascinating and entertaining page-turner.

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