The Wrong Mother, Sophie Hannah, Penguin, $15.00.
This is one of those trade paperback buys that's well worth it. If you are a fan of Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, or more recently, Tana French, Sophie Hannah is the writer for you. While I wish all of those women (including Walters) would be handed a copy of Rendell's A Judgement in Stone as a template on telling a concise yet terrifying psychological thriller, Hannah is nevertheless an extremely gifted writer who has both the narrative chops and the psychological depth of all the aforementioned ladies. She just could have trimmed a few pages.
That said, I couldn't put this book down. The creepy yet compelling narrative concerns one Sally Thorning, whose life begins to go awry in small ways and then in much larger ones as the narrative accelerates. The real turning point, however, comes when Sally's husband calls her attention to the sad story of a murdered mother and daughter near their old home. As Sally listens, she's horrified to find that the dead woman's husband, Mark Bretherick, is the man she spent an illicit week with a year or so back. Then she sees his photo: it's a different man.
Determined to discover the truth behind the Mark Bretherick she knew and the one on the screen, Sally goes to the grieving widower's house to talk with him. When she does, she's irretrievably drawn into both Mark's life and the life of the dead woman, Geraldine, who has left behind a diary of her thoughts on motherhood, none of which are too complimentary.
Reaching further back through time to another concise psychological masterpiece, Celia Fremlin's 1958 The Hours Before Dawn, this book covers some of the same territory. In Fremlin's book, the main character is struggling with a newborn, and all the sleep deprivation that comes with it. In this novel, in the amped up 21st century, the mothers chronicled are dealing not with newborns but with toddlers or slightly older children while also juggling full time jobs. Sally's day is a delicate balance of tasks, all of which have to go right or everything will tumble down. Luckily her husband is both patient and prosaic, and he helps as he can. Sally's other guilty secret is that she enjoys her job so much she doesn't want to cut back to be with her children, even though she loves them,
Geraldine's diary is worse, in a matter of degree. She's a stay at home mom, but she sees her daughter, Lucy, as a cross to be borne. Anyone who has ever lived with a toddler will tell you that they are exhausting, demanding, and endless, but they are also sweet; loving and delightful. Geraldine, however, seems to extract none of the delight, only the exhaustion and frustration. It's Sally's frustrations turned up many notches, and Geraldine's widower, reading her diary, doesn't recognize the woman he's reading about. He feels he's failed her, but Geraldine's mother sees instead details in the diary that just aren't right.
As the investigation proceeds, details of the mother's and the daughter's life are teased out, as is the mystery of the man Sally spent a week with. When the action accelerates toward the end of the novel, it was all I could do to put the book down. The revelations unwind quickly, many of them surprising, but the after taste of what the difficulties of motherhood might do to some women—and to their children—linger when you close the covers. This is the work of a very intelligent writer who is gifted at both narrative and narrative twists. While some of the twists may seem a bit far fetched, Hannah hasn't cheated—she's laid the psychological ground for her revelations. She's as unsentimental a writer as Rendell, another gift that should continue to serve her well.
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