Book review: Motherthing - Ainslie Hogarth

There was an American psychologist, Harry Frederick Harlow, who conducted experiments on rhesus monkeys. He is well known for maternal seperation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments. Now, where does this all fit into a fiction novel?

Ainslie Hogarth came up with a brilliant concept of a “motherthing”. With the experiments of the rhesus monkeys finding comfort in an inanimate cloth monkey, Hogarth made a character out of the experiments of Harry F. Harlow. It may seem quite absurd, but it is actually genius. Abby Lamb, the main character did grow up with a mother but not necessarily a good one. She found comfort in a couch, that she called “couchy” in her adolescence. This need for a “mother(thing)” carried through to adulthood and it rotted into love.

Motherthing contains a few upsetting topics such as suicide, sexual abuse, and violence. There are a few graphic descriptions, if you are a sensitive reader please be advised. This post may contain spoilers, if you want to give it a read yourself I would suggest that you read this post at another time.

The novel has a main plot which runs in the present. This takes place after the suicide of Abby’s mother in law, Laura. The present walks through the deterioration of Ralph trying to cope with his mother’s death and Abby slowly losing her sanity.

Throughout the novel there are flashbacks from Abby’s childhood where the reader learns about her mother and the abuse she had to endure. With Abby’s past, the reader is introduced to a few main components of her life, for example “couchy”, Laura’s opal ring, and a book called Secrets of a famous chef. I am impressed how both of these things are continuously relevant and integral to the plot. What I have noticed in some novels are some important components losing their relevance or getting lost in the plot.

There are also interactions with Laura when Abby and Ralph moved in to stay with her. With these interactions the manipulative relationship between Laura and her son becomes clear. The rejection and resentment of Laura towards Abby are also illuminated. Laura is a selfish and embittered soul. Even after her death the grip around her son’s throat does not loosen, but instead tightens.

Some of the events are written in dialogue form which gives it a theatrical and dramatic effect. It makes me think about a vintage 70’s advertisement about some type of appliance or an article written by a man about “how to be the perfect wife”. I think it is quite a creative “break” and adds to the novel’s comical feature.

Character development, or rather dilapidation
I think a writer succeeded if a character infuriates the reader beyond belief. Ralph, is such a weak character and he becomes pathetic after his mother’s suicide. To give you an idea of why he aggravated me so much, I would compare it to the scene in the movie Mother! when there are two people sitting on the edge of the sink. After Mother asks them not to sit there, they climb back up when she turns her back on them. The guests eventually breaks the whole sink out of the wall. You wish you could climb through the screen to shake them. Well, it is the same with Ralph. Some of his actions, if not all of them, are exceptionally dissapointing. There is a reason for this which explains some of his actions, but does it really? What is real and what is not?

Abby is immensely affected by Ralph losing himself and not being able to help him in any way. By doing everything and giving every bit of herself to Ralph, she diminishes and blames everything on herself. She longs for a mother, but she did not find it in her own or in her mother in law. The longing for motherhood would not leave her, instead it became an obsession. Abby takes care of the elderly, but there is one specific old woman, Mrs. Bondy, that she nutures like a child but it does not stop there. She wants to have a child, so much that she desires a daughter named Cal, that does not yet exist. This desire turns into an obsession and a key of determination to banish the spirit of Laura hovering over the house and Ralph. But, Abby may be losing her mind and nothing may be real. It may just be her mind consuming her and drenching her in a place where she may not even find herself.

The end?
The novel’s ending is relatively open for interpretation. You can read it in a literal sense, the ending will become a happy ending. If you read it in a figurative sense, things become complicated and unclear. Questions arise about reality and the reliability of the narrator. Is Ralph losing himself, or is it actually Abby? Was Laura’s actions more methodical rather than selfish? I think that the ending is the charm of this novel and it is one of the aspects that makes it a unique novel. It is a psychological horror after all…

It is with great sadness that I do not find this novel perfect. It may just be my taste in language that affects my opinion. It may just be the style of Hogarth, but it felt rather “cheap”. If there was more variety in the language usage and richer descriptions it would have been flawless for me. Again, this is my opinion and it is not meant to be an insult. I think Hogarth did an overall astounding job with this novel and I would recommend it to anyone that likes psychological horrors.

Thank you for reading my post about this wonderful novel. I hope that you get to read it for yourself. If you do, please tell me about your thoughts and interpretations.

(The photographs were either taken with @fermentedphil’s Nikon D300 or my iPhone)

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