BOOK REVIEW: THE OTHER MOTHER by RACHEL M. HARPER (aka my favourite book of the year)

The Other Mother is, to me, a perfect novel: a masterclass in character work and prose, skillfully structured and thematically rich. It’s a multigenerational family saga, one that embodies just how capacious and powerful that genre can be. In saying that this novel is a “multigenerational family saga,” I’m also saying that it’s able to encompass so much: the thorny and complicated family dynamics, the tangled threads that by turns connect and bind these characters together, the change and growth from one generation to the next, and the expansive sense of time and place that is facilitated by a narrative that unfolds over the course of decades. What’s more, it all comes together with such impressive command; it is a real testament to Harper’s skill that she is able to write a story that is so large in its scope and yet so intimate in its focus; the narrative is at once sweeping and minute, giving you access to a plethora of interconnected characters and colouring in their histories for you, but also allowing you to get to know and understand them in an incontrovertibly real and grounded way. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”–what we get here is both a sense of the whole and of the parts, of the family entire and of the person in particular.

“He wondered if time was a form of love, a way of dolling out affection in reasonable pieces, in parts small enough that you weren’t aware of their size, and of what was slowly disappearing from your own form as you gave them away.”

Part of why The Other Mother manages to so effectively balance scope with detail is because of the way it’s structured. The novel is split into seven “books,” each of which consists of seven chapters, and which focuses on a specific family member. We begin with Jenry, who is the linchpin of the narrative, and then branch out to the key characters connected to him: his mother, his “other mother,” his uncle, his grandfather, his other grandfather, and so on. And there is not a single section in the novel that is even close to lacking in any way. Certainly, some characters are more important than others–Juliet, Jenry’s “other mother,” in particular is the real heart and soul of this book–but regardless of how much they shape the narrative, every one of them gets a section that fleshes out their inner life and highlights their place within the novel’s core family. Usually, with stories that switch POVs from one character to the next, I tend to dread that switch because I inevitably get attached to a character and don’t want to leave them for another’s POV. With The Other Mother, though, that was never the case. Part of why I adored this novel is because I trusted it so much: I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and so I was never nervous going from one POV to the next. That is to say, I had complete faith in Harper’s writing, and her writing never let me down. (That being said, my favourite sections were easily Juliet’s and Jasper’s–Jasper’s especially I will probably never forget; it was that poignant.)

“She fingers a groove in the soft wood, wonders why time wears some things down, makes them softer, more malleable, yet other things like bones and brick–things that make up structures, that are designed to carry weight–become more brittle.”

Implicit in everything I’ve praised so far about this novel is the fact that it is extraordinarily well-written. Harper writes with piercing clarity, her prose lean and lucid, allowing the story to organically and seamlessly unfold over the course of the novel. And she has such remarkable control of this story, too. A lot happens in The Other Mother–there is plenty of loss and grief, secrets and lies–and in another writer’s hands, it could’ve easily been a morose, overwrought melodrama. Under Harper’s control, though, the prose and tone are pitch perfect, measured without being cold, moving without being sentimental. Every once in a while, I read a novel that makes me want to stop for a second to process just how impressive its writing is, and The Other Mother is one of those rare novels. Scenes with dialogue–literally any conversation between these characters–are especially brilliant. You’re able to glean so much about these characters by how they talk, what they take from conversations, how they interpret what’s said to them, what they notice, and what they don’t. The way that Harper renders the minute details of her characters’ demeanour and mannerisms throughout these scenes is just exquisite; it’s what I mean when I talk about the piercing clarity of the writing, and what’s more, these details–observations, habits, quirks–recur throughout the novel, adding to the sense that these are fully fleshed out characters whose idiosyncrasies carry on throughout the years that the narrative spans.

“His mother used to always say, I can recover from any death but my own, but he thinks now that it’s the other way around: your own death is the easy one; what befalls the people you love most in the world, that is the most difficult thing to survive.”

The last thing I want to talk about is the thematic focus, because The Other Mother is incredibly sympathetic and tender in the way that it approaches its very complex exploration of family. As I’m sure is evident from the title, the novel is interested in examining what motherhood looks like outside the bounds of what’s dictated by patriarchy and everything that attaches to it. In taking motherhood as one of its central thematic concerns, though, the novel is also able to more broadly interrogate and look at the family as a unit. It’s interested in asking what makes a “mother,” yes, but it’s also interested in asking what makes a family. We look at all sorts of family dynamics, here–mothers and sons, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters–and to be sure, none of those dynamics are ever simple or straightforward. It’s a book that very much underscores how family at once drains and sustains us, holds us up and lets us down, and the story is adamant in depicting these family members as flawed. After finishing the novel, I watched a bunch of interviews where Harper talked about how she really had to take her time with this novel because she wanted to be able to embody every character’s POV without judgement, regardless of whether she agreed with their decisions or not. And that’s really the crux of the novel, I think: you don’t agree with all these characters’ decisions, but you do sympathize with all of them, and understand why they made those decisions. The beauty of the story is that you always have to hold these two things in tension: the fact that these characters hurt each other, and the fact that they do so not out of malice, but out of love.

The Other Mother is so many things, but more than anything it is a novel that is just brimming with love. Heartbreaking but hopeful, it’s written so feelingly, a product of such care and nuance on the part of the author, that what you get in the end is just nothing short of brilliant. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

DNF at 23%/114 pages

As with so many of the books I DNF, this was okay, but not good enough for me to finish. Patel’s writing flows well and has an elegance to it, but the character work here let this novel down for me. My biggest issue was that this novel felt like it was going through the motions of the myth rather than telling us a story where the character’s decisions organically moved the plot along. A lot of the plot beats felt like they occurred because the myth necessitated it, and not because it made sense within the context of their characters and their relationships (I don’t know the original myth this is based on, though, so take this with a grain of salt). I understand that this is a retelling and so must, in some way, follow the course of the original story, but I would’ve liked to see it told in a way that made it feel a bit more authentic to the characters.

The Mask of Mirrors of M. A. Carrick

DNF at 32%/200 pages

The thought of reading 400 more pages of this book made me want to jump off a cliff. I was just so deeply, deeply bored reading this. Sure the pacing is slow and the worldbuilding is convoluted, but by far my biggest issue here is the lack of any kind of meaningful character development or dynamics. These characters exist just to act and react to things; they have feelings but only insofar as those feelings serve to move the plot forward. And as characters, they are just AGGRESSIVELY BLAND. In the 200+ pages of this that I read, i did not experience a single emotion; I wasn’t surprised or moved or angry or sympathetic or intrigued–just nothing. I could not care less about what happened to these characters, least of all Ren, who had about as much personality as a paper towel. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I decided to cut my losses and call it quits.✌

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

DNF at 25%/70 pages

I really did not get along with this book. The prologue was brilliant: moving, evocative, intriguing. It pulled me right in to the story, and almost made me cry–it was that good. But then once we got on to the actual book it all just…fell apart. The biggest issue for me here is the writing: it does not read smoothly at all; it had a very fragmented stop-and-start quality to it that made me aware of every single second that I spent reading this book. (After I DNFd this I started reading a book whose writing I actually got along with and the difference was like night and day.) Add onto this a narrative that felt very dry and lifeless and I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

DNF at 15%/100 pages

Not to be dramatic but this book is everything I hate about fantasy: so painfully bland, with not a single iota of personality to be found anywhere. Nothing about this book held my attention in any way. I read 100 whole pages of it but couldn’t tell you a single thing about these characters if I tried.

The Betrayed by Reine Arcache Melvin

I was really excited to read this–I’ve read so few novels set in the Philippines–but unfortunately it didn’t work for me as a novel. I actually quite liked the beginning of the book, but after that I felt like the plot and narrative structure were a bit fragmented, which made it hard to follow these characters and track their relationships and development. The narrative as a whole had a tendency to flit from one character to the next, one moment to the next, with few interstitial scenes to really do the work of connecting together those moments and making the narrative as a whole more cohesive.

I also DNFd The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, Little Foxes Took Up Matches by Katya Kazbek, and What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, which I have full reviews up for here, here, and here, respectively.

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I finished this not even a full 24 hours ago and I remember barely anything about it. Such was the utterly forgettable nature of this book.

I’m going to keep this review short because I don’t really have much to say about this one. I found it to be a largely underwhelming read, tonally flat and narratively meandering. Win Me Something feels like a lethargic book, like it doesn’t have the energy to give the reader anything that’s even remotely interesting or exciting. Because of that, it reads as very dull, one-note: we go from one scene to the next, from past to present, without a sense that the narrative is progressing, or going anywhere, really. It’s less a narrative and more a series of observations with some reflections tied to them. And for some novels that execute this well–I’m thinking of something like A Winter in Sokcho–that’s enough, but that is certainly not the case here. Win Me Something is a short novel with short chapters, so part of me wants to say that maybe it could’ve used a bit more space to develop its story, but no: I don’t think length is the issue here. It’s the lack of substance; Win Me Something feels so flimsy, like it’s barely holding itself together. Needless to say, I didn’t find it anywhere near substantial or interesting enough to sustain my interest.

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