Mothernight, Sarah Stovell

Sarah Stovell didn’t mock me like Martha Baillie. Sarah Stovell’s back-cover quotation about time was meant to console me. Her back cover quotation said “I was beginning to realize that time didn’t move forward here. It just spun round and round, circling an old date, endlessly.” Bad for the characters. Good for me. Or it would be if time really worked that way, which it doesn’t, and you can tell because I am now back home working on finding a job. But Sarah Stovell actually knows this. Later in Mothernight she says “Time is cruel. A relentless one-way street to the end of the world. It would be easier if life, like botched knitting, could be undone.” Sarah Stovell understands me.

Mothernight is about a girl called Leila, who was sent away from her family as a little girl, following the death of her half-brother. She has spent her life at a boarding school, rarely going home because her stepmother hates her. Only recently she has fallen in love with a girl called Olivia, and it has been arranged that Leila and Olivia will go to Leila’s home for a visit. Everyone at Leila’s home is tense and awkward, and there is an angry, manipulative, dysfunctional neighbor girl called Rosie, on whom Leila seems strangely dependent. The writing was lovely. As soon as I started the book I liked the way Stovell writes. Here’s the first paragraph:

Along with a few of the things that held them together–a bank statement, a quote for repairing the ivy damage at the side of the house, advance notice of September’s increase in school fees–the letter that was inevitably bound to pull them apart arrived in the morning’s post.

Stovell writes with an economy of style that I admire. I wish she had written six more books. Mothernight is depressing as hell, and by the end of it I started to feel like Stovell was being grim just to be grim, but I would still read six more books by her because I like her writing. Here is what Olivia says about Leila:

She never said Dad. She always said My father, and I thought it sounded so possessive and yet so remote, as though he might have been one of those ravens at the Tower of London–the ones that had had their wings clipped so they couldn’t fly away even though no one knew what they were there for, or what good they did. They only knew they were important, and it would be a disaster if they ever let them go.

The characters in this book are wonderful and vivid, and I loved it that Leila and Olivia’s relationship was hardly a thing at all. They get in trouble at school, a little, and Leila’s stepmother starts out a little sneery of them, but mostly, that it’s a same-sex relationship doesn’t make a huge amount of different. Olivia’s devoted to Leila, and when Leila isn’t having a family-tragedy-downward-spiral, she’s devoted to Olivia too.

Much of your enjoyment of this book will depend on whether you enjoy this type of book. Myself, I like books where there is a family tragedy that nobody wants to talk about, and everyone acts like if they don’t talk about it with sufficient persistence, it will go away; but then, aha, you can’t get rid of something by pretending it didn’t happen, so eventually it All Comes Out. That is one of my favorite types of books. Even better if (not the case here) the book starts out by telling you the ultimate outcome and then you spend the rest of the book finding out why. Saves me having to read the end.

Oh, and also, I appreciate having this pointed out. This does not get pointed out frequently enough:

I wasn’t allowed outside the garden and that, too, was because of strangers. They told us about them at school. The staff were vigilant about it, every year. They never said a word about the ones who weren’t strangers. They never said a word about the people you knew. The ones in your house. Rosie knew, though. Rosie understood statistics.

True story. Thank you, Sarah Stovell. Please write more books. I will read them even if they are grim.

Other reviews:

Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover
My Favorite Books

Also, an interesting but spoilery interview with Sarah Stovell over at Vulpes Libris.

Let me know if I missed your link!