Mother Island – Bethan Roberts

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last four weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Bethan Robert’s Mother Island which I think manages to combine both a thriller and a family drama to create a wonderful suburban noir novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 320 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

What is it like to have someone steal your child from you and what it is like to steal a child from someone, are the two questions at the heart of Bethan Roberts fourth novel Mother Island. When Nula decides she needs to go back to work, in part because she is going stir crazy stuck indoors with her son Samuel, and get a nanny she is faced with the question of who can she trust with her child. Fate it seems has the perfect solution when her cousin Maggie, who has recently dropped out of Oxford, offers to take the role. What could be safer than being with family right? Well wrong, fate it seems can be a cruel thing. Within months of becoming Samuel’s nanny Maggie’s bond with the child becomes something deeper that becomes all consuming, and so she abducts him. I should stipulate here that you know this is going to happen from the very first line, what you don’t know is that Bethan Roberts has more secrets coming than first meet the eye.

Blood and sweat. So much of child-rearing is blood and sweat, she thinks, and she can clearly imagine the way Samuel’s back will be sodden with sweat from Maggie’s car seat, wherever they are, because Maggie has not taken his sheepskin with her. It is this, more than anything, that makes Nula worry about her son’s safety. Because Maggie isn’t the kind of person who would be thoughtless enough just to forget to call. Nula knows her cousin can be a little – strange is too strong a word. Odd. Eccentric, perhaps. Isolated, maybe. Yet with Samuel she has been such a careful, caring person.

It could be very easy for a novelist to simply tell the story of Maggie’s kidnapping of Samuel and then follow her journey into hiding with him and have you wondering if Nula will ever get her son back. Bethan Roberts does this AND she adds in a second plot into the novel as we head back to Maggie and Nula’s youth and the summers that they spent on the welsh island of Anglesey. These were summers of secrets, of sexual awakenings, of jealousies, of friendship and completion. One summer in particular changing the dynamic between them, they think they have both forgotten but clearly all these years later, they haven’t.

If those two secret laden plots weren’t enough, there is more. I love a book with layers and Mother Island is a book that has lots and lots of hidden depths going on below its surface. The most obvious theme in the novel is that of motherhood. Nula thought that she would be the perfect mother and is discovering that it isn’t as natural as they make out in books and on the telly. Maggie always thought she would have children and so far, until she steals one, she hasn’t. But what makes a good mother? This novel also looks at the great Mummy ‘good’, Nanny ‘bad’ theory which has been raging on for sometimes. It also looks at the differing relationships children have with their nannies over their parents which can be a tricky one (I know I was a ‘manny’ for a year for my aunty) which can prove a complicated beast with jealousies and differing ideas of childcare forming.

There are many women, after all, who have killed their own children. Up to half the women in Broadmoor have killed their own children. She had read that somewhere once, and now cannot stop thinking about it. Who were they, these women? Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Did they wake up one June morning, the street almost silent apart from the rumble of an approaching rubbish truck, and find their children gone? Was there a moment of uncertainty? Did they, like her, not quite know if they had brought this about themselves?

What I thought Roberts did incredibly, and what really sets this apart from many literary thrillers (for that is what I would definitely call Mother Island) is the depth into which she goes into these two women’s characters and the psychology behind the facades they are both showing to the world. Nula outwardly seems like a woman having the perfect life; loving husband, great job, gorgeous child. However we learn she is a women who is clearly going through some kind of post natal depression and is wracked with jealousies and riddled with insecurities. Likewise to the outside world Maggie whilst seeming slightly aloof and somewhat a loner would be described as a lovely young woman who has got a little lost from life, people just don’t realise how lost. We get intricate insights, and understanding into both of their world views inwards and outwards. This is all the more compelling when we see one of them go from being a good person to one who does something bad.

The other theme of the book, for me, was families and how we do and don’t connect with them. In their childhood Nula and Maggie both make deep connections with the other’s closest relations (I mentioned the jealousy earlier) and they judge the others families in varying degrees. Most interestingly for me with Mother Island was the relationship of cousins which is not looked at enough in fiction in my experience and yet is a fascinating relationship. Cousins tend to be like special extra siblings when you are young yet also have that distance which can lead to those familial friendships fading as you grow older and further apart. You are related by blood but if you aren’t put together on family holidays, weddings or funerals would you really bond normally?

In some books where there are alternating stories between past and present one will hold your interest more, not so here. In the present we have the thrills of what will happen, in the past we want to know just what on earth happened. Here I have to mention what I loved particularly in the past storyline was both the dubious character of Uncle Ralph and the vivid way in which Anglesey is described. I will say no more.

Anglesey was all this. The trembling trees. The stars of garlic flowers in spring. The glimpse of the Menai Strait through the leaves as she walked down the lane at Llanidan. The tide right up to the boathouse, the water blue and full. Mudflats appearing and disappearing. The sounds of sheep and birds and boats and the scream of the white peacock in the old chapel-house garden.

All in all, with its superb prose, twisted secret ridden plots, its sense of place, atmosphere and brilliant characterisation (especially psychologically) Bethan Roberts’ Mother Island is a brilliant mix of literary thriller meets family drama. We have abducted babies, familial jealousies and childhood secrets combining in a prime example of suburban noir. I read it in two sittings the first time and got even more out of it the second time, it is one of those kind of books. I would highly recommend you give it a read.

Have you read Mother Island and if so what did you make of it? It has reminded me how much I love Bethan Roberts’ writing, I adored My Policeman so much, and I am very much looking forward to reading The Pools and The Good Plain Cook which I have copies of and will be reading very soon – have you read any of those yet?

3 Comments

Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Vintage Books

3 responses to “Mother Island – Bethan Roberts

  1. Ah, darn you, I thought I’d be safe, but you have intrigued me and now I just have to add this one to my TBR list!

  2. I read The Good Plain Cook years ago and remember enjoying it, but I forgot about Bethan Roberts. Maybe it’s time to reinvestigate…

  3. A Kiwi in Oxford

    Another one I have read on your recommendation, Simon and I too loved it. There was always the tension of what was going to happen to the child and I felt a lot of sympathy for Maggie who thought she was doing the right thing. Bethan Roberts has a lovely gentle way of really getting into the heart of ordinary people.

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