"Mothered" by Zoje Stage
Grace never thought she’d say yes to her mother moving in with her. But then again, she never thought the world would be shut down for a global pandemic. And since buying her new house, the only way she can keep making payments is with her mother’s help. Maybe, they’ll have time to bond. Time to really get to know each other. Time to heal from their past wounds. For a while, things are good. Until they’re exposed to the virus and have to quarantine.
Soon, good intentions are questioned. Old wounds become infected and new injuries bleed fresh. But when her mother accuses her of the unthinkable, it sends Grace into a spiral of doubt and madness. Haunted by the ghosts of her past, Grace can’t escape the threat she invited in: mom.
Mothered isn’t a novel that plays coy. From the very beginning, we know one of the characters meets a bad end. Stage doesn’t tell us what happens, or who it happens to, but thanks to a gripping prologue, we know it’s horrific. It’s in that foreboding tone that we move into the story, to the beginning of the pandemic and into Grace’s life.
Stage makes a note at the beginning, that while this is a book about the pandemic, it isn’t meant to fully encompass or encapsulate our pandemic. It will feel eerily familiar, but pieces of it may not. I think it’s an important note, and one worth mentioning here, as the parallels to a reality we’re still mired in may be too much for some. Inside the story, it’s all too easy to slip back into the horror of lockdown. The days filled with worry, unsurety, and the constant thread of fear woven through every day and night. We’re thrown back inside our four walls, and page by page, Stage closes the walls in.
Inside the house, the relationship between Jackie and Grace is tumultuous at best. They are different people. In some ways they’re practically strangers. But no one can quite escape the people who raised them. And no matter what you do, or who you think you’ve become, when faced with that person, you can’t help but see pieces of yourself in them. Grace fights against this resemblance while yearning for Jackie to finally see her, to finally accept her. To finally love her. It’s an internal war made volatile by the forced proximity. Where neither can escape the other, and they have to find a way to make peace or suffer.
Even if you have a good relationship with your parents, the small irritations of being back with a parent were vivid and completely understandable. Jackie moves things, rearranges various areas, hangs pictures on the wall, all with the innocent defense of simply trying to help. But it’s the small details that often hit the hardest. The things that are difficult to get mad at but still feel like an invasion. Jackie slowly occupies Grace’s space, taking away her spot on the sofa, her kitchen, and then so much more.
But because it’s all set during lockdown, where days slip seamlessly one into the next, these intrusions feel bigger, hit more personally. There’s nowhere for Grace to go, no one for her to turn to. Stress, combined with fear, topped with the surreal blur of reality, takes Grace from logical and in control, into a paranoid spiral. Nightmares rip her sleep away. And when Jackie reveals the true reason for her stay, Grace has no idea what to believe. It's a slow descent into madness, one that the reader can’t quite be sure of. Is Grace reliable and reasonable, relaying her experience as it happens? Or are we seeing a distorted reality through Grace’s eyes?
These are the subtle layers intricately plotted and perfectly paced that resonate throughout Mothered. The fine line between normal and abnormal. How quickly reality can dissolve into something ethereal and fleeting. The complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, between sisters, between friends. With prose that moves from languid to sharp, Stage mimics infection through language, drawing us in, wringing us out. Each twist and turn is a feverish dance, drawing us deeper into Grace’s nightmare. And the further we go, the less sure we are, until we reach an explosive end.
And what a brilliant spike of horror that ending was. Outside of landing at the events foreshadowed in the prologue, we get a delicious glimpse of future horrors to come. I don’t know if Stage intends to go back to these characters, or back into this world, but even so, the idea of cycles repeating, of tragedy pending was a fantastic end to a chilling book. It made it more insidious, and keeping with the pandemic parallels, served as a reminder that nothing will ever quite be the same again. Not for us, and not for these characters.
Mothered is described as a claustrophobic psychological thriller, and if you go in knowing nothing other than that, I think you’ll have a vivid idea of what to expect. It’s visceral and unnerving, clawing into the depths of the human psyche that most people work to keep buried. Grace isn’t perfect, in fact, she’s flawed. But so is Jackie. Stage writes difficult characters so well that even when I want to hate them, I can’t help but like them. She cuts to their humanity, both the good and bad, and never apologizes for it. The truths they both carry are very real to each of them. That’s the crux of their conflict, memories and assumptions cemented into absolute truth over the years. The question of who is right, who is wrong, but then, it doesn’t really matter. As in life, when we hold on to these perspectives, convinced that only we understand the situation perfectly, undoing the damage is rarely easy. Sometimes it’s impossible.
Maybe it’s because the pandemic is so present throughout the book. Or maybe it’s that I too have a complicated relationship with my mother. But Mothered felt alive to me. This is the perfect kind of horror. One where it feels real, where I can believe I’m there in the room, in the house as I read late at night. I was enthralled, understanding the emotional knots that Grace felt, unsure of Jackie’s motivations and personas. The supernatural elements were perfect. Understated but terrifying. And the complex psychology was a delight to get lost in. If you’re looking to be (s)mothered, this book is for you.
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