Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Other Voices, Upper Room
By Roxanne Fequiere
About a month ago, my old high school announced that it would close at the end of the year. Upon receiving the news, I surprised myself by plunging into a funk that I couldn’t quite describe for days afterward. I left my hometown more than seven years ago—though I’m only a train and ferry ride away—and while I visit my parents and friends semi-regularly, I’d only shown up for my high school a couple of times since graduating: a fundraiser here and there, a dinner for honors students where I gave a speech about self-doubt. Some of the children I’d chased after at my school’s day camp for six summers were now in college. My friend Megan had alerted me to the closure via text message and we both struggled to wrap our heads around it. The mother of a baby girl, she’d imagined getting to hand her daughter her diploma when she graduated one day, the same way her mother, also an alumna, had done for her. Her niece had just been accepted to the high school and now didn’t know where she would go come fall. As for me, I hadn’t planned on a future that would come full circle in such a way; my high school years were just a pleasant memory. Megan had real reasons to be upset. What was my excuse?
Mourning, at least publicly, is a privilege typically afforded to the righteous. If a man, recently deceased, took it upon himself to have a wife and a mistress, it is generally understood that only one of them may attend the funeral. A person that commits a heinous crime against another and laments their own loss of freedom upon sentencing signifies the sort of callousness that curls our collective lip. Less morbid yet still repulsive, we recoil when our friends let on that an old flame has expressed regret about their relationship’s demise. “He broke up with you!” we remind them, meaning that he forfeited the right to grieve over what might have been. There is catharsis in public mourning; woe unto those who have not earned it.
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is peopled by characters that live in this ambivalently dolorous realm. If a mother leaves her child, what is the appropriate response—sorrow or rage? Are the sins of teenage boys absolved once they reach maturity? When a friendship dissolves, must all the secondary and tertiary bonds that formed over time go with it? Who gets to mourn an unwanted pregnancy? That the church, more specifically a Southern California house of worship called Upper Room Chapel, looms largely over the plot is no mistake. Christianity is predicated on its mysteries and morality; a question may have an answer that’s tough to come by, but there is always a correct and proper way to behave.
For Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey, it is the church that brings them into each other’s orbit. Luke, the pastor’s son, was born into it (though he hardly embraces it), while Nadia and Aubrey found themselves there as a result of loneliness and grief, whether someone else’s or theirs alone. Though the three of them remain centripetally intertwined by memory, shared trauma, jealousy, and the hope of love, there is hardly enough salvation to go around. Sometimes it feels that everyone is unusually fixated on the goings-on of a few high schoolers turned young adults, but the tendency to slip into the grooves of the past like an old shoe is always just around the corner. Curl up in your childhood bed for a few nights in a row, and suddenly you’re as angsty as a teenager when your parents try to wake you. Visit your old high school and see if the booming voice of the meanest teacher on staff doesn’t still make you flinch.
All throughout The Mothers, the female church elders act as Greek chorus and gossipmongers, alternately removed from the young folks whose misdeeds they predict and actively spreading rumors that worsen their wounds and social standing. Bennett is exceptionally deft at sketching the outlines of ambiguity and the shadows of judgment from those on the outside looking in. In a community where everyone’s business is up for grabs, secrets are less a solution than a stopgap. The truth will come out. It’s only a matter of when, and though the reader knows it well before it’s revealed on the page, it’s no easier to pick a side.
After a long week of bouncing from meeting to deadline to social engagement, I found myself on Saturday morning only thirteen pages into The Mothers with an essay on it due that weekend. Red Bull in hand, I hunkered down in my bed, ready to dredge up an adolescent version of myself, the one who could pull an all-nighter, forgo food, anything to avoid missing a deadline. Of course, even the first thirteen pages had been so engrossing that I’d missed my stop on the train. The last 262 flew by, no all-nighter necessary. It’s nice to know that so many of my former selves are standing by, ready to spring into action to rescue me from a bout of procrastination, make poor decisions in the name of a good time, ruthlessly propel myself toward a goal, or shed a tear for a school and a community that once comprised the better part of my world. I simply must remember to make room for them when they come to visit.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.
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