When you become a mother, you start to disappear. Your body becomes someone else’s. Your priorities change. Your existence is suddenly tied to breast-feeding, dirty laundry, the changing table. Even you can’t see yourself.
So it is with Rebecca Stone in Rumaan Alam’s riveting new novel, “That Kind of Mother.” Rebecca, a poet married to a British diplomat in Washington, finds her life upended when her son is born. Because this is the 1980s, Princess Diana is everywhere in the news. Rebecca, by comparison, hardly exists.
Her one lifeline is Priscilla, a hospital nurse, who becomes her nanny. Priscilla is full of advice about lactation and baby care. Her formal education was limited, but she has years of experience — she gave birth at 17 — and she possesses what Rebecca does not: a deep understanding of motherhood.
Alam, whose debut novel, “Rich and Pretty” (2016), is about the friendship between two women, is an attentive observer of female experience. In some ways, the characters at the center of “That Kind of Mother” are polar opposites — Priscilla is black, Rebecca is white — but they forge a working relationship, and Rebecca eventually finds herself considering the black experience:
“She’d search out metaphors for Priscilla’s skin color, chocolate/coffee/coconut, all unimaginative at best and offensive at worst. . . . Black skin called chocolate because the stuff is sweet. Priscilla was sweet, but that was beside the point.”
As a poet, Rebecca’s business is language, but Alam shows how words sometimes confuse her.
“Rebecca reached for her tea, careful not to spook the sleeping baby. Was spook racist when a verb as it was when a noun?”
Parenthood, too, is full of contradictions.
“It went unsaid, in the parenting books . . . that the baby needed you but also you needed the baby. They were reassuring. You could hold on to them and it was like you were holding on to life itself. . . . A baby was so weak — why should it make you feel so invincible?”
When Rebecca decides to adopt a black baby, she learns that erasure goes beyond female experience. Her white son is treated one way, and her black son quite another. She notices that black people are invisible or hypervisible, depending on the circumstances. Another mother in the playground assumes Rebecca has adopted a crack baby. Her sister fears a family history of AIDS. Even her husband is unnerved about the adoption.
As her boys mature, Rebecca realizes that she is “an author with no real authority.” When a middle school teacher complains that her black son is disruptive, Rebecca suggests that he is merely spirited. The teacher hopes he can learn to “restrain his enthusiasm” and suggests that he’s also sexually inappropriate. The boy is forced to drag his desk outside the classroom and sit alone.
Alam, who is the adoptive father of two black boys, has created an outstanding depiction of motherhood and cross-racial adoption. He deftly sets up these characters to fail repeatedly even as they persevere. The tensions of privilege and identity are brilliantly set against the backdrop of wealthy American cities, and Alam’s pacing is phenomenal. “That Kind of Mother” is an astonishing book, one unafraid to look at the minefield of parenting and race. It reveals how we blind ourselves to the truth — and how we might finally open our eyes.
Lisa Page is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.” She teaches writing at George Washington University. On Sunday, May 13, at 3 p.m., Rumaan Alam will be in conversation with Melissa Scholes Young at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Rumaan Alam
Ecco. 291 pp. $26.99