By: McKenna Graham, Columnist
Book: “The Mothers”
Author: Brit Bennett
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: Five stars
Warnings for book: sexual themes, rape mention
Brit Bennett’s debut novel is the most beautiful book I’ve read all year. I read it in a single day, totally absorbed by the writing and wrapped up in the characters. It’s a pretty character-driven novel—the plot is simple and concise and revolves around the characters rather than events. Bennett has crafted a community out of the tropes of southern black churches that defies literary criticism. It makes you fully aware of the color of your skin and forget what it means, all at once.
The Mothers are the older women of the Upper Room, the community church around which the story is centered, and the book takes on an interesting perspective. Bennett changes between using the collective voice of the Mothers, who become omniscient when speaking, and the third-person narratives of Nadia Turner, Luke Sheppard and Aubrey Evans, arguably the main characters. The story follows the lives of these three from the summer before Nadia leaves for college to their early thirties, entangling them tirelessly together.
Nadia and Aubrey become good friends one summer, bonding over the shared absence of a mother in their lives, as Nadia’s mother committed suicide a few months prior and Aubrey moved out of her house to escape a terrible situation. Nadia and Luke found each other slightly earlier and entered into a lighthearted relationship that ended with a pain that seems irreconcilable. Luke and Aubrey meet through one of the Upper Room’s programs. Indeed, all three of them are tied to the church, even if they don’t want to be, and it is the church that brings them together, in one way or another.
The book begins with the Mother’s opening, which sets the tone for the entire novel: this is a story about black America and abortion and living in a community that prides itself on its values of God, virtue and togetherness.
From there, we are introduced to Nadia, Luke and Aubrey, three young teenagers characterized by stereotypes that they immediately disregard. Nadia is the girl confident with her body who goes out and parties, but still got a scholarship to go to school in Michigan. Luke is the star football player whose injury his sophomore year of college still haunts him. Aubrey is the quiet good girl who goes to church and keeps her head down but harbors a pain that she never escapes. In contemporary America, still wrought with racism, this book stands as a testament to the strength and voice of a minority still plagued by discrimination.
Bennett makes everyone in the novel feel real, as only character-driven books can, but even this seemingly simple assertion is multi-faceted—everyone in the novel is frank about the realities they face.
Aubrey knows she’ll have to go to community college, Luke has accepted that his bad leg means his future playing football will never be realized. Nadia knows that even the tiniest incident could jeopardize her chance to get away from the town in which her mother has just died, and everyone in the novel knows just how easy it is to get shot for being black.
Bennett makes no effort to put a varnish over the grimness of being black in contemporary America and strikes a beautiful balance between ignoring it and making it the central focus of the story. She presents the reality honestly, exactly as it is, and this allows it to play a role in the story without being the central focus.
“The Mothers,” then, leaves a raw and powerful impression. I can’t even begin to describe the beauty of Brit Bennett’s writing, with to-the-point paragraphs punctuated by fragments that proclaim literary perfection and mastery of the language, a simple plot that allows you to truly understand the lives of the characters and their community and an unflinching narration that tells truths like no other novel has.
Truly, Bennett’s debut novel should be met with resounding applause. It is raw, honest and beautiful, all courtesy of the simplicity of the plot. The novel puts its head down and does what it needs to do, says what it wants to say and doesn’t sugar-coat anything or check to see the reaction it garners. It just is, and this allows you to reflect on the characters as well as yourself. It’s a prime example of the artist having no control over the message their art sends. It feels like Bennett wrote this novel for herself, from herself, and any response you feel is unbiased and solely your own. This makes the novel itself all the more powerful, because it presents realities—sometimes ugly ones—and forces you to think about them.
This is a review I will never be finished writing, because I know I’ll never stop thinking about this book. Bennett has a voice that speaks for more than just one generation: she speaks for decades’ worth of people and communities and identities, and she presents you with the opportunity to pay attention to what they have to say. If you read nothing else this year, read this book. It is important, it is real, and it presents voices drowned out for generations through writing that deserves to be heralded for generations to come. This is a must read.
Brit Bennett will be reading from “The Mothers” at the Maryland State Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped on Oct. 20, hosted by The Ivy Bookshop.