MOTHERS NOT, by Katixa Agirre, translated by Katie Whittemore
Halfway through ‘Mothers Don’t’ by Basque author Katixa Agirre, two mothers, the unnamed narrator and her college friend Léa, set out to get drunk and eat oysters. On the surface, it’s your standard night out for mothers – sundresses, scandalous confessions and the relief of escaping home life – but the evening is haunted by their former friend Alice, who is on trial for murdering her twin children.
Katie Whittemore’s translation from the Spanish reveals darkly elegant prose throughout. When Alice’s au pair discovers the murders, “the duvet covers them almost completely,” the narrator says. “The twins. Their eyes were closed. Beside the bed, in an armchair upholstered in striped fabric, sat Alice Espanet, the mother, dressed in a nightgown. One of her breasts was visible. To the left.” The call for an ambulance “was recorded and that’s how we know it took two minutes, there were some communication problems, sighs, wailing, disbelief. In all appearances Alice Espanet kept her composure for the duration of the conversation. She didn’t get out of the armchair or cover her left breast.’
The narrator, still mistreated by her son’s difficult delivery, slips in and out of sight (a maternal quality) as she tries to write a novel about infanticide – a book that, like this one, mixes a fictional plot with historical precedents. “How could I ever stylize violence against children,” she wonders. She does this in part by interrogating other myths and stories about women who kill their children themselves or are accused of being bad mothers, from Euripides’ Medea to Sylvia Plath to Lindy Chamberlain.
More generally, the novel is about the way patriarchal cultures judge women in general. After the narrator took the stage to receive an award for her latest book, “there were many comments on Twitter about my appearance, along with suggestions that I had only received the award because I was a girl.” Both the prosecution and defense in Alice’s trial are trying to use feminism to legitimize their position. “A mother can be cruel,” the prosecutor argues, trying to portray Alice as a criminal, not a lunatic. “To think differently is to give in to an outdated view of motherhood and femininity.”
Even our narrator tries, fruitlessly, to understand something essential about Alice, using her oyster date to interview Léa about Alice’s childhood as a bulimic and a pathological liar, told as each “glutinous, shapeless mollusk” is consumed. She later retches them on the banks of a river. Novels about the darkest possibilities of motherhood, pregnancy, and postpartum recovery are easily filled to the brim with all manner of feces (torn flesh, raw nipples, blood), and this one is no exception. The sustained focus on the consumption and regurgitation of the raw oysters – eaten while they are alive and as defenseless off the shell as a fetus outside the womb – bonds several of Agirre’s themes together.
“Murder is at most something men commit against their partners or exes,” Whittemore translates, but the cases that “elicit so much curiosity, so many clicks, such high ratings” are often those of women. Agirre’s novel claims that the idea of a bad or even indifferent mother (a type that naturally includes women who don’t want to be mothers at all) evokes a highly emotional and illogical response in our culture. Inventive in form and fearless in style, this novel makes clear how inadequate a courtroom is to hold the complexities of psychology. Agirre has given us a deeply disturbing exploration of what a mother or woman can or cannot, should or should not do – a subject that is both timeless and all too topical.
MOTHERS NOT, by Katixa Agirre, translated by Katie Whittemore | 161 pages | Open letter | Paper, $15.95
Catherine Lacey is the author, most recently, of ‘Pew’.