|Koren Zailckas (korenzailckas.com)|
Feeling overwhelmed by all the, you know, cheer in the air this time of year? Wishing for a little doom, a little gloom to balance things out? Have I got the book for you, and I mean that in a most complimentary way to the author.
Koren Zailckas’ fiercely disturbing “Mother, Mother” is, under no circumstances, a book that you should read when you’re feeling depressed, or you’re kind of hating your mom, or you feel the need for some light chick-lit. It is, however, one of the most profound and insightful books I’ve encountered about mother-child relationships when they go devastatingly wrong ― as in horrific, mental-illness-inducing wrong.
Zailckas is also the author of two excellent memoirs, 2005’s best-selling “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood,” in which she recounted nearly killing herself through binge drinking as a teen, and 2010’s “Fury,” a plunge into the nature of anger, both her own and others’.
Her mother comes under considerable criticism in both memoirs; in interviews, Zailckas has said she’s since realized that she understands her mother better now; that, as she said in a 2010 interview with online site smithmag.net: “She just loved me in a way I hadn’t been able to understand. Her upbringing meant she only knew how to express affection in a very limited way.”
One must wonder how that mom-daughter relationship is doing since the publication of Zailckas’ first novel, “Mother, Mother,” which is surely one of literary history’s most chilling indictments of bad moms.
Zailckas has a dark writing style that’s hard to get used to at first but will quickly draw you in, to the point you feel like you’re right inside her mind. And you might want to get out, thank you very much. Nevertheless, you’ll keep reading till the wee hours because she‘s just that great a writer. Her occasional biting humor helps leaven the quiet horror of the story.
There’s no parental ax-wielding here, no mommy-dearest incidents with wire hangers or other obvious abuse. But there is definitely horror as we follow the twisted tale of Josephine Hurst, whose life seems at first the ideal of perfection and control, like a balloon filled till it‘s too full, just waiting to burst.
In Josephine’s family, her 12-year-old, possibly autistic son Will (diagnosed by Josephine, who fervently believes in her own medicinal and psychiatric skills) garners the most attention because of his disability. Oldest daughter Rose runs off with a boyfriend. Younger daughter Violet experiments with Eastern philosophy, drugs and fasting, earning her a trip to the psycho ward. Dad Douglas retreats to alcohol and pretty much disappears from the story. Through all of this, including a suspicious incident that brings child-protective services calling, Josephine struggles to maintain her illusion of composure.
Sharp-eyed Will notices when the little touches that define Josephine start to go awry: “A small but undeniable thing. The toilet-paper roll was on backward. His mother was very vocal about her preference for the ‘over’ orientation” (it was the manufacturer’s intent, she argued; the pattern was printed on that side). For reasons Will couldn’t quite explain, seeing its tail brush the wall made his blood run cold.”
Your blood will go frigid too, especially when you get to the Shirley Jackson-worthy denouement. Zailckas is a writer to watch and treasure. But remember: not when you’re wishing your mom had kept her opinions about your holiday-dinner plans to herself.
By Joy Tipping
(The Dallas Morning News)
(MCT Information Services)