Novel of the week


Jayne Anne Phillips <em>Cape, 292pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0099288737

MotherKind revisits the dirty realist terrain - or "Kmart realism", as Tom Wolfe called it - which emerged as a literary trend in the United States during the 1980s. Set in small towns and written in a flat, stylised prose, such work made an interesting counterpoint to the flashy sophistication of the Brat Pack writers, whose novels were set in hedonistic LA or New York.

Pregnant and engaged to Matt, a doctor separated from his last wife, Kate learns that her mother Katherine is dying of cancer. Determined to see her only daughter become a mother, Katherine desperately embarks on a course of chemotherapy. When Matt and Kate buy a house in Boston's upmarket Pill Hill, they invite Katherine to stay. With two rowdy stepsons-to-be, a dying mother, a baby on the way and a new marriage, Kate has a full plate, as it were. But where a different kind of writer might exploit a dramatic situation, Phillips plays the action down, paring it back into a story of small triumphs and frustrating setbacks.

The endless industry of the live-in help, the ups and downs of Katherine's treatment, and the foregone conclusion of the birth of Kate's baby boy - all are noted in Phillips's economic, levelling prose. Indeed, the tone is so muted during the first half of the novel that events seem to be blanketed in a heavy layer of snow; it is almost as if the bitter Pennsylvanian winter has found its way inside the family home. By the middle of the novel, the weather has lifted and spring brings Matt's divorce and Kate and Matt's garden wedding. But it also brings Katherine's decline and death.

In many ways, MotherKind is a companion piece to Phillips's earlier, more experimental novel Machine Dreams. While the setting has shifted from the impoverished, small-town West Virginia of Machine Dreams to respectable, middle-class Boston, both novels have a strong sense of the bond between mother and daughter. The style, tone and the focus on the minutiae of domesticity are also similar.

Somewhat provocatively, MotherKind suggests that Eighties prosperity, and the equal opportunities won by generations of feminists, went hand in hand with certain devastating after-effects, particularly the implosion of the nuclear family. For Kate, an average Baby Boomer mother, family life is lived under a state of siege. Being a mother and running a household are as hard - although in different ways - as they were before.

MotherKind is very much a product of the generation in which it is set. Many of the novel's themes and the characters' attitudes to marriage, divorce and work are specific to that era. Twenty years on, with the gap between rich and poor widening every year, the lives of the economically secure but emotionally troubled Baby Boomers whom Phillips depicts seem both fragile and charmed.

Justine Ettler's The River Ophelia is published by Picador USA

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie