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!

  • This book sounds so good. Of course, I love any books that have a boarding school as part of the setting.

    • I do too. In fact this one’s not set at a boarding school very much, and when the characters leave the boarding school, the book becomes way more depressing. But it’s still very good.

  • Sometimes a grim book is just what I’m looking for, so this one will be good to remember. I am glad you loved the book!

    • Hahaha, I am almost never actually looking for a grim book, but sometimes I can deal with them if they are very good. But I hope you like it if you get into a grim book mood! 🙂

  • Her writing sounds lovely- that first quotation is about the Tragedy Of Which No One Speaks, I take it?- and I love books about severely dysfunctional families, especially with dark pasts. Add a nonissue queer relationship and I’m sold. Off to my list to add this- thanks for bringing to my attention!

    • Actually, it’s only sort of about the Tragedy of Which No One Speaks. But it’s a good opener anyway. I love books with severely dysfunctional families too! When I was small I used to write stories about really really wicked parents being cruel to their virtuous children, and my parents found it disturbing. :p

  • This is not a Kurt Vonnegut book, obviously. My mistake 🙂

    • Yes, I think it would have been quite different if written by Vonnegut. 🙂

  • Here in California, everyone is searching for a job.

    You’re not alone.

    • Thanks! Although I wouldn’t wish this kind of stress on anyone, it’s nice to know there are others struggling with the same stuff as me.

  • gaskella

    I agree, this was a great book if a bit grim, but it was very compelling.

    • It was. I wasn’t completely thrilled with out it turned out, though. I appreciated that Stovell didn’t give her characters–any of them–a pass on taking responsibility for their lives, but damn, that ending was bleak.

  • Yep, I’m all ready to read boarding school novels — what is it about those settings? I get sucked right in!!

    • I think it’s something about the shut-in-ness of boarding schools. There are a finite group of people, and you cannot get away from them, so you have to figure out a way to deal with them. Same reason I like manor house mysteries. 😀

  • I confess I made the same mistake as Lightheaded when I first heard you mention the book 😛

    This sounds wonderful – and I’m also a fan of those books about a family secret no one will talk about. And YES, that last thing doesn’t get pointed out often enough.

    • In fact it seems to almost never get pointed out. My sisters and I are always griping about how hysterical people get about kids being snatched off the streets, when the far likelier scenario is their being abused by the parents’ friends and relations.

      Yay for family secrets! They are much more fun in books than in real life. :p

  • Ooh I loved this book too when I read it – only it was a couple of years ago now and I can’t remember my exact thoughts. Hang on…. I’ve just gone back and reread my old review (it was only a paragraph, not worth linking to) and I thought it was like a modern day Greek tragedy. I thought her writing was beautiful, too.

    • It was exactly like a modern-day Greek tragedy. I even feel like Sarah Stovell said something similar, that that’s what she intended for the book. But maybe I imagined it. Yeah, it’s dark and inevitable like those tragedies. Love.

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