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.