Mothers are everywhere in Brit Bennett’s fantastic debut novel. The title, “The Mothers,” specifically refers to a group of elders at Upper Room Chapel who hold very specific ideas about life and behavior. But there are other mothers in these pages — women who are callous or smothering, who keep their babies or don’t. And it’s worth noting that the best mothers in the story are a lesbian couple.
But despite these layers of mothering and motherhood, Bennett doesn’t ignore the broader racial situation in the United States. Her characters talk about the pain of hoping an unborn baby is a girl. “Black boys are target practice,” one says. “At least black girls got a chance.” They also acknowledge the problems in their community, including drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse. Some of the most simultaneously funny and painful sections involve the church mothers talking about men, and in those conversations we see resignation and rage about how societal ills have poisoned gender roles.
The genius of “The Mothers” is how Bennett uses those feelings in service to a story that could take place in any part of American society. Beautiful, smart Nadia Turner is about to leave Oceanside, Calif., for the University of Michigan, and her ex-Marine father couldn’t be prouder. He’s so proud, in fact, that he ignores his only child’s deep grief after her mother’s suicide. Nadia gets involved with Luke Sheppard, son of the Upper Room pastor and Latrice Sheppard, “first lady” among the mothers.
What happens next will haunt Nadia and Luke for years to come. It will also affect their parents and many others. Bennett takes the common experience of unwanted pregnancy and makes it newly significant through the lens of a tightknit community still blinking from its emergence into safety and prosperity. It is impossible to understand the aftermath of Nadia’s actions without understanding how shaky the ground feels under every character’s feet.
Some novels take place as you read them, while others grow more complicated as you think back on them. Bennett has written that rare combination: a book that feels alive on the page and rich for later consideration. If you read “The Mothers,” you will learn a lot. You will learn what it’s like to experience a mother-shaped absence at the center of your life, as well as what it’s like to feel your mother’s hot, judgmental breath on your shoulder every second. You’ll learn that men, even when they do the wrong thing again and again, have feelings about babies born and unborn. You’ll learn that rigidly cruel actions have roots in sad, earned wisdom. And you’ll learn that Brit Bennett is a writer to watch.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Brit Bennett will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Brit Bennett
Riverhead. 275 pp. $26