365 Books in 365 Days – Episode 76 by Annie Walton Doyle

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Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

“He’s not like his mother because he has me, and I will save him. We’re special, Ralph and I. I can cure Ralph. Because it’s what I was born to do. Remember that, Abby, vanquishing this depression is your true calling as a wife.”

The strange, almost twee setting of Ainslie Hogarth’s satirical domestic horror is best exemplified by its glorious cover, reminiscent of a Hammer Horror poster. Although based in contemporary times, there is a certain campy, vintage quality to the tale. And, in a way, it’s a tale as old as time – that of the ultimate nightmarish mother-in-law. The humor of this premise is in a perfect balance with the more emotionally distressing and viscerally disgusting elements of the story, keeping you engrossed at every weird and wonderful turn.

The story opens strong, with a vivid description of the mother-in-law Laura’s suicide. But rather than played for tragedy, we feel from our narrator, Abigail’s standpoint, that this suicide is a relief. Though Abby paints herself as this “perfect wife,” this taboo thought already lets us know she has a dark side – played out to its logical, gleefully gory conclusion by the end of the novel.

A lot of this book, as the title suggests, is about how to be a good mother and, indeed, wife. These implanted mother-child bonds are the relationships that the story is built upon. The ‘motherthing’ of the title (alongside Abby’s own biological mother) is obviously a failed expression of the maternal instinct. But Abby looks to mother and be mothered in all the wrong places.

Working as a nurse, she believes one of her patients, Mrs. Bondy, is the icon of motherhood – until she meets Mrs. Bondy’s daughter, who lays out her many failures. Abigail also seeks to be something of a replacement mother to her husband, Ralph. She wants him to use her by any means to feel better about the death of his mom. At one point, in this radical submission to a husband, Abigail confesses to wishing she could flay her entire body to become entirely vaginal for his pleasure.

In many ways, Abigail’s desire to please Ralph is reflective of the trope of the ‘cool girl.’ She wants to combine her submission and domesticity with fun and sex appeal to become the ideal woman. However, in spite of her efforts, Ralph prefers to live down in the basement with the ghost of his emotionally abusive mom than look to the future of his family with her. This is the Oedpial complex at its most brutal. 

Mothering is, at its basest definition, the creation of life. But Motherthing poses the question: do the ends justify the means? By the book’s brutal climax, we’ve seen Abigail come to justify a violent compromise in the trade-off between life and death. But perhaps that’s what it takes to be a good mother … 

“A Good Woman recognizes that you can be good and bad at once. A Good Woman can acknowledge your humanity while recognizing the fact that you also need to die. That’s why it’s hard to be A Good Woman. That’s why we’re not all good women, are we…?”

Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.

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