Portslade Library book group was chosen to review ‘Mother Island’ by Bethan Roberts, which was one of the winners of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. For further details of other winners please follow the link. http://www.fictionuncovered.co.uk/
The book group at Portslade Library started in 2002, joining a number of other book groups held in Brighton & Hove Libraries. We meet in the library on the second Saturday of each month to discuss one book that we have all read. Usually everyone gets a chance to say what they thought of the book as we go around the table but we all chip in and the discussion can sometimes go off topic a little especially when there is something contentious. Our group is currently made up of eight women and one man, who sometimes feels a little outnumbered. We generally choose our books from a Brighton & Hove Libraries book list. Members of the group are also welcome to make suggestions of any books they would like the group to read and the library service will try to accommodate this. Many members have said how much they valued reading books as part of the group that they would never have thought to pick up from the shelf and that belonging to the group has widened their reading choices.
Mother Island provoked contrasting reactions in our book group and would be an excellent book for discussion. “Mother Island is a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down,” said one member, whilst others found the story simple and predictable.
The author examines family relationships and the serious consequences when these break down. Maggie abducts Samuel, the two year old son of her cousin Nula, for whom she has been working as a nanny, and she returns to her childhood home to find her brother Joe. This drama is played out against the life-changing events of one summer, sixteen years earlier. Maggie’s confusion strengthens her attachment to her brother, causing one reader to observe that Maggie seemed to be half in love with Joe. Into this uneasy situation, Maggie’s cousin Nula comes to stay, with Nula’s artist father Ralph and the dynamics of the cast list begin to shift and change. The resolution of the story emerges when Nula reclaims her son and Maggie begs her mother Fiona to help her.
The narrative moves between the present and back in time which one reader thought was cleverly done, with the writer uncovering the relevant past events, little by little, keeping you guessing and fearing the outcome. The author sets a good pace, although one reader was disappointed something really unexpected never happened.
One of us felt all the characters are totally believable whilst another disagreed. However, the first reader was impressed with the depiction of Maggie, a caring and capable young woman who was lonely and lost, herself in desperate need for love but disturbed and confused, unhappy as a victim of unhappy and selfish adults. Maggie lives with the failure to live the life promised by the young girl in her uncle’s portrait, she drops out of her Oxford degree possibly on the verge of anorexia, conscious that she had caused her family to unravel when she revealed Nula’s pregnancy. She suffers from but cannot articulate the lost and damaged child inside her adult self and she has a problem with boundaries, searching for unconditional love from the children she nannies. Every time, all loved and all lost, thinks Maggie. One reader wondered if Maggie’s pattern of failure is summarised at the end when she attempts suicide only to hear the voices of her mother and brother calling her back. Another sharp-eyed reader observed that prints by Paula Rego are displayed in Maggie’s flat, the painter of a world of dark fairy tales based on psycho-sexual intrigue and taboo, revealing another insight into Maggie’s complicated personality.
Maggie is the central character to the story linking with all the others: her cousin Nula, her brother Joe, her mother Fiona, the child Samuel, Nula’s husband Greg, the uncle Ralph described by one of us as the proverbial rogue, the father Alan. Through the emotionally charged interactions with Fiona and Joe, you understand her motivation or the struggle she has experienced and never resolved. She is driven by the knowledge that Ralph encouraged Nula to have an abortion without telling Joe and her actions in some ways are to punish Nula. Joe’s devastation about the abortion results in his loss of interest in photography and his life goes down a mediocre road working in the local camera shop. The mother Fiona plays a passive role, her initial affair being the cause for leaving Oxford, and the subsequent fling with Ralph fractures the brothers’ relationship. Only at the end is Fiona ready to be a caring, attentive mother because this story is also about reconnections: Maggie with her mother, and Nula with Samuel.
The central theme is parent/child relationships and how parenting affects the growing child’s sense of security and its effect on what they look for as an adult. Joe, perhaps as damaged as Maggie, says: “You never know what people are really up to. Even the people you love.” Unfulfilled promise is another theme we identified. Maggie drops out of university after a year and does not pursue her love of art and Joe gives up his photography. Both were outsiders when they first went to Wales, and have grown up as troubled adults, neither sustained by art or life.
Different aspects of mothering are portrayed by the female characters. One reader identified strongly with the problems that some new mothers experience in bonding with their babies and the subsequent feelings of guilt and post-natal depression, like sleep-deprived Nula, reacting to “the deadening stranglehold of nappy changes, feed, rock to sleep.” The novel deals with important issues, one of us felt, with realism, honesty, sympathy and compassion.
Some of us will be looking out for the next novel by Bethan Roberts with great interest.