When motherhood goes wrong
THIS is a tale of two pregnancies, and one which takes a very hard look at motherhood and marriage. Freya, who is 43, and her sports presenter husband Frankie are childless, and have decided, after nine years of marriage, to try to start a family. Their attempts so far have achieved nothing but an increase in the tension between them, so the couple sign up for expensive IVF treatment at a fertility clinic in Perthshire. The course requires Freya to live within easy reach of the clinic for its duration. At the suggestion of Kit, a man 20 years her junior whose partner is also attending the clinic, Freya finds accommodation on his mother’s farm. Kit is a frequent visitor, and the two of them find a bond forming between them which threatens to destabilise her marriage even further.
Though she’s unaware of it, Freya’s situation has uncanny parallels with, and meaningful differences from, the experience of her mother back in the early 1970s. Her mother, ageing actress Lilias, keeps her cards close to her chest where her daughter is concerned. She has never revealed to Freya the identity of her father, even concocting a fictional version of her daughter’s origins to throw her off the scent. The central relationship in this novel about motherhood is badly askew. Whenever they’re together, the mood darkens as if in anticipation of a thunderstorm, and their conversations are wary, combative and underscored by resentment on both sides.
Lilias is an actress of the old school: flamboyant, exaggerating her career in repertory theatre to make it sound a lot more impressive than it actually was, and certainly not a woman who would stoop so low as to have a relationship with a farmhand. Close portrays Lilias brilliantly, particularly in the way she exploits her knowledge of stagecraft to manipulate people, to both attract and deflect attention and to aggrandise herself while belittling her daughter. As her backstory unfolds in tandem with Freya’s, we see she wasn’t always so imperious and sure of herself.
Freya resents the lack of attention she received as a child, the fact that she was continually shunted off to stay with a family friend and above all the withholding of her father’s identity. It’s easy to sympathise with Freya, but it would be easier still if she weren’t acting so impulsively and secretively herself. She and her husband are driven even further apart as her attempts to conceive bring a lifetime of issues to the surface.
Close’s handling of her themes is exceptional. Although separated by 40 years, both Lilias’ and Freya’s pregnancies are times when they are removed from their former lives and placed in an unsentimental rural environment where life is shaped by the primal rhythms of animals’ reproductive cycles. It’s an appropriately visceral setting for a sensual novel which delves deep into the complex and dangerous relationship between mothers and daughters, in which tenderness and toxicity are laced together in an eternal braid.
Ajay Close delves into the complex relationship between mothers and daughters, in which tenderness and toxicity are laced together in an eternal braid