A young nanny entering her employers’ lavish home in the Basque Country has a sudden premonition that something is amiss. The scene that awaits in the master bedroom is horrific: her twin charges, just ten months old, lie cold and purple-lipped in their parents’ bed. Drowned. The lady of the house sits blank-faced. All she can say is: ‘They’re fine now.’ Soon her husband will arrive in his chauffeur-driven car, while the police drive her to a psychiatric ward.
A few weeks later, a novelist giving birth to her first child realises with a shock that she has met the accused, Alice. She will later take leave of absence from her job – not to devote herself unreservedly to the new baby, but to write about the circumstances of the killing. Her obsession with the crime feeds on her own ambivalent attitude to motherhood, with its joys and constraints. As much as she loves her son, her main feelings during his first months are exhaustion and boredom. Writing is her vocation; she speaks of ‘an instinctual feeling telling me that I could change the world for the better by filling a white screen with black scribbles.’ Yet being a ‘good writer’ means transgressing the traditional rules for being a ‘good mother’. It is almost impossible to square the circle: ‘The good writer would actually like to be a man.’
In a historical excursus entitled ‘Killing children’, Agirre notes that infanticide has been a common phenomenon down the ages for reasons as diverse as placating the gods through sacrifice, controlling family size, the avoidance of female ‘dishonour’, son preference and eugenics. Even today, it is more common than one might suppose. Yet infanticide is a taboo subject if ever there was one. Finnish author Johanna Holmström is the only contemporary writer I know of who has tackled it – chiefly in her historical novel Själarnas ö (‘Island of Souls’) – but here the mitigating circumstances include sexual violence, extreme poverty, social exclusion and spousal abandonment.
How can a mother commit so terrible a crime? The quest to shed light on this particular case leads the fictional novelist to examine Alice’s unhappy, impoverished youth and the transactional nature of her marriage to a well-heeled wine grower, the aptly named Ritxi (pronounced ‘Richie’). She advances five hypotheses, each with a different frame of reference (psychological, sociological, medical and so on), but concludes that the reasons for ‘the act’ are probably a complex mixture of all of them. Moreover, while it is possible to account for a crime in scientific terms, to understand is not necessarily to forgive. In the prosecutor’s words: ‘Evil exists. We would like … to attribute evil to social inequality, or mental imbalances. But sometimes … evil is just there: the dark side of humanity in all its purity.’
Mothers Don’t is an unflinching examination of both an unconscionable crime and the dilemmas facing a creative writer who is also the mother of a young child. Congratulations are due to 3TimesRebel for publishing this challenging novel, translated from the Basque by Kristin Addis, in its first year of existence.
Reviewed by Fiona Graham
By Katixa Agirre
Translated by Kristin Addis
Published by 3TimesRebel (2022)
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Fiona Graham lives in Flanders. Her translations include Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (from the Swedish) and Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet’s Movement: How to Take Back Our Streets and Transform our Lives (from the Dutch).
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