Fiction – Kindle edition; 3TimesRebel Press; 176 pages; 2022. Translated from the Basque by Kristin Addis.
I have Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog for bringing Katixa Agirre’s Mothers Don’t to my attention. This novel, translated from the Basque, feels like something Australian writer Helen Garner might pen if she blended her true crime reportage with fiction, and there are nods to both Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby and Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea in their dark depictions of women who carry out abhorrent acts against children in their care.
Mothers Don’t is billed as a novel but it reads like an extended essay. And it’s probably one of the most thought-provoking — and confronting — books I’ve read in a long while.
A tale of two mothers
The story focuses on two mothers who knew each other in a past life: one went on to become an award-winning writer who accidentally falls pregnant with her Swedish boyfriend; the other, an artist, married a rich older man and bore him fraternal twins after undergoing infertility treatment.
But this is just the back story to the novel’s shocking premise: the mother of the twins drowns both in the bath when they are 10 months old and is put on trial for their murder.
The award-winning writer, who narrates the novel, is so shocked by this crime that she decides to write a book about it in a bid to try to comprehend the incomprehensible. She carries out research on infanticide — who does it, why they do it and how society punishes, or doesn’t punish, the perpetrators — attends the trial and examines her own feelings about motherhood.
Along the way she undergoes all kinds of psychological contortions as she tries to figure out what drove Alice to do what she did — was it postpartum psychosis? insanity? deliberate self-destruction? or perhaps a conspiracy cooked up with her husband to go back to a child-free life?
A sensitive subject
There’s no doubt that Mothers Don’t deals with some very dark subject matter, but it’s written sensitively and with a desire to try to comprehend the worst of human nature.
Because I have to talk about that muddy territory. It is neither a moral obligation nor a social accusation. It is something much more basic. The muddy land is there, as Everest is there, irresistible. Especially for those of us who are like me. Defective. We are defective. I am.
That “muddy territory” is infanticide. And when the author claims she is “defective” what she is really saying is that we all have the power to carry out this abhorrent act but most of us never do. Indeed, infanticide has been widespread throughout human history, as a form of delayed birth control or to simply dispose of unwanted children:
Children have always been killed, even today, even though we are more shocked by it nowadays. And indeed, we are very shocked by it. The child molester, the kidnapper in the park, the predatory child killer, these are the worst monsters imaginable. And yet, the massacre of the innocents goes on, as you must all surely know.
The book is also good at examining the ways in which the legal system works (or doesn’t), especially when there are no established protocols around cases of this nature, highlighting the fact that trials are “a contest of stories”:
Basically, there are two opposing stories, very different from each other, that are in effect two artefacts obtained by combining the same elements – the mythemes – in different ways. Don’t hire a lawyer, hire a good writer. Because it’s not the truth that will win, but the person who tells the best story, the most coherent and believable one. In other words, the most mythological story, the one best able to fit the world view of the jurors. The prosecution presents a piece of evidence and provides an interpretation. The defence proposes a different way of interpreting the same piece of evidence. The jury has to decide which one to go with. Which story and which body and which spirit to believe.
(As an aside, Janet Malcolm also discusses this at length in her book Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial).
Mothers Don’t also highlights the challenges that confront writers who use true crime cases as subject matter:
I debated with myself how far I was prepared to go. Would I be a lawyer for the defence or the prosecution? What did I want to be? Was it the writer’s job to be the judge? Or was that task better left to the reader? Was it acceptable to use fiction, or should I tell the story as it actually happened, in a factual, journalistic style, without attempting to shine a light on what I did not and could never know? And, critically, if I decided against the journalistic approach, what style would I adopt? Was it even possible to stylise this most heinous of crimes: violence against children? The question made me shudder, so I set it aside for the time being.
Mothers Don’t is a hard-hitting book that puts a horrendous, rarely talked about, crime in the spotlight but it does it in a way that is free from sentiment and sensationalism, always giving the accused the benefit of the doubt:
UNSTABLE, NARCISSISTIC, EGOCENTRIC, CHARISMATIC, HATEFUL, out of touch with reality, foolish, overwhelmed by neuroses, low self-esteem, manipulative, selfish, liar, impulsive, arrogant, sneaky, troublemaker, incomprehensible. All of the above, without a doubt. But capable of murdering two small children in such a cold and calculated way? Her own two children, brought into this world with so much effort, defenceless and tender, defenceless and loving, defenceless and beautiful? No.
At all times it brims with humanity, positing the idea that there are no easy answers and that motherhood, in all its various shapes and sizes, can be a tough gig. But it’s also a fascinating look at the judicial system and the challenges that confront writers who tackle taboo subjects.
I read this book as part of Reading Independent Publishers Month 3 #ReadIndies, hosted by Lizzy and Kaggsy. This event, which runs throughout February, is designed to showcase the books published by independent publishers across the world. 3TimesRebel Press focuses on translating female authors who write in minority languages. It is based in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, Scotland. Find out more via the official website.
12 thoughts on “‘Mothers Don’t’ by Katixa Agirre (translated by Kristin Addis)”
Yeah, I read Stu’s review too, and this was not a book I wanted to read.
Imagine doing the research for it, it would be a nightmare.
Quite. And she says as much in the story, not quite understanding why she’s doing it. I sometimes wonder why I read these things too but I think it’s because I’m eternally fascinated about why good people do bad things… what is it that pushes them over the line?
There’s a program on SBS at the moment, based on a true story, about a reformed White Supremacist fighting the good fight in London, and honestly, it gives me the creeps. It references Jo Cox and Lee Rigby and I suppose in its own way it’s trying to explain why people do bad things. But I gave up on it, I just couldn’t watch it.
Hmmm… I’m never much of a fan of fictionalised / dramatised accounts of true stories; I’d rather watch a documentary so even though this subject sounds intriguing I won’t bother hunting it out.
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I don’t think new mothers who kill their children are bad people, but I don’t suppose society can allow it to happen. Perhaps the mothers – except in those rare cases where there actually is malice – should be committed for a few years. It must be a terrible form of depression that brings it about, when babies so often engender the opposite feeling, unconditional love.
Will I read it? I don’t suppose I’ll ever come across it, is the easy answer.
Mothers who kill clearly need some psychological help. This book highlights how the judicial system is not set up to do that and doesn’t have protocols in place to help these women; it just punishes them instead. Admittedly, I had to hunt this book out online as it’s published by a small independent press. I paid more than I would normally do so for a Kindle edition but I don’t mind doing that when I know it’s supporting a tiny outfit of dedicated and passionate literary types 😊
The first thing that drew me to reading your review was learning that it was translated from the Basque – that most impenetrable of languages Infanticide seems one of the most brutal of crimes, so I’d be interested to read this story, and to see how the judicial process handles the affair. I’m not sure whether I’d be able to finish it though. I tend not to buy fiction, as I so rarely read books twice, but it is available, I see, so I’ve got to decide whether to stretch a point. Supporting an independent publisher is a plenty good enough reason. Just off to look at the publisher’s site.
Well, I’ve only read three books from the Basque Country and all were very dark: https://readingmattersblog.com/tag/basque-literature/ Be interested to know if the region publishes anything a tad lighter 😆
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Well, I hope they have some light stuff. They seem cheerful enough people inn real life.
It’s stark subject matter, but I guess something needing to be discussed. I get furious about the outraged response though, as if women aren’t allowed to have mental illnesses and are supposed to be so fulfilled by childbirth that they don’t need anything else. It’s hardly surprising, though horrific, that with the pressures put on women by society some of them just snap. Having said that, I’m not sure I could read this… 😦
Yes, the outrage when Lindy Chamberlain (whose real-life case is mentioned in this book) was accused of killing her baby at Uluru (then known as Ayers Rock) was way OTT. She was innocent, but because she didn’t react the way the public thought she should react (ie. she never cried, but was always level-headed and calm) that was taken as a sign of guilt. She went to prison but later had her conviction quashed.
Gross generalisation coming up, but men kill children all the time…. often for sexual gratification, not because they’re undergoing psychosis, and while there is outrage at this, these kinds of crimes when conducted by male perpetrators don’t seem to attract as much venom and bile.
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Exactly that – it’s a generalisation that’s based on something, and it’s because of this pressure on women to live up to the mythical bond between them and their child, and also to behave in ways considered acceptable for women. Makes my blood boil.
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