Book review: Brit Bennett’s first novel — about a young black woman facing life after the death of her mother — shows remarkable confidence, flair and wisdom.
by Brit Bennett
Riverhead, 278 pp., $26
First novels are fascinating things: For some authors, they’re an opening note to a long and glorious symphony of work; for others, a brief solo that soon fades away. When the author of a first novel is young and talented, you very much hope for the former — and I suspect it might be true for 26-year-old Brit Bennett, whose debut novel, “The Mothers,” shows remarkable confidence, flair and wisdom. (Bennett will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 25 at Elliott Bay Book Co.)
Previously known for her nonfiction essays (particularly the viral 2014 piece “I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People” on jezebel.com), Bennett structures her book as both love triangle and coming-of-age tale of a young black woman. Its main character is Nadia, a bright high-school senior in Southern California grieving the loss of her mother (who committed suicide just months ago) and facing — in quick succession — pregnancy, abortion and college. Other points of the triangle are Nadia’s boyfriend, Luke, a promising college football player whose dreams were ended by an injury, and her best friend, Aubrey, a quiet girl who is, as Nadia notes, “also a keeper of secrets.”
What happens to Nadia, Luke and Aubrey isn’t the stuff of great drama; just life and love, at that interesting time when last-minute youth meets fresh-minted adulthood and the world begins to unveil itself in a different way. But the way Bennett spins her tale is instantly engaging: A sort of Greek chorus of older church women — among the many “Mothers” of the title —— wander in and out of the book, like audience members gathering and dispersing, commenting on the characters. “Like most girls,” the mothers note of Nadia, “she had already learned that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you and like most girls, she hadn’t yet learned how to navigate the difference.”
As the pages turn — and they will, quickly — we follow Nadia as she begins a new life in Michigan, still haunted by her mother’s death. At home, “loss was everywhere; she could barely see past it, like trying to look out a windowpane covered in fingerprints. She would always feel trapped behind that window, between her and the rest of the world, but at least in Ann Arbor, the glass was clearer.”
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We come to learn that Aubrey is herself motherless, in a different way, and that Nadia doesn’t regret her abortion yet nonetheless thinks often of the child that might have been. Mothers, both real or imagined, populate the book; even Nadia’s mother flits through it, as her daughter imagines different, happier versions of her mother’s life: “Her mother traveling the world, posing on the cliffs of Santorini, her arms bent toward the blue sky.”
Though Luke is never as vivid as the two young women, you read taking pleasure in the characters, and in Bennett’s uncanny way of bringing them alive with a tiny twist of words. A stern pastor’s wife, interviewing Nadia, glances at the doorway “as if she expected a better girl to walk through it”; a kind staffer at the abortion clinic calls Nadia “baby” — “a cotton-soft baby that seemed to surprise the nurse herself, like it had tripped off her tongue.” And, in a novel gently shaded by mourning, this passage seemed especially poignant: “Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be slingshot backward into its grip.”