Grief isn’t just an emotional state.
It is a reshaping of everything you have ever known, a resculpting of a world view that once felt as permanent as a towering mountain of solid rock but now feels like here-one-day-gone-the-next sandbars that come and go with the tide.
It’s something that Michael Parsons, the protagonist in Matthew Green’s charming and emotionally evocative novel The Other Mother knows a lot about even if he doesn’t have a name for it, caught as he is in a wave of grief that no one, including his mother and siblings who are equally adrift after the unexpected death of his father, is willing to acknowledge, dissect or deal with in any kind of meaningful way.
To make the weight of this unacknowledged grief even heavier, Michael is carrying a secret about his father’s death that is so potentially damaging and profoundly awful that speaking it loud could further shake the already loose foundations of his life which now includes a stepfather, Glen, who he hates.
Throw in some behavioural issues stemming from an ADHD diagnosis for which Mike is receiving daily counselling from school therapist Mrs. Newfang, the welcome/not welcome/what do I do with her presence of new friend and cool girl Sarah Flaherty who lives next door and Mike’s world is spinning out of control requiring every one of his coping mechanisms to deal with it all.
“This mother is not my mother. She looks like my mother. She looks exactly like my mother. Same curly brown hair with a little streak of grey on the side. Same pink slippers with a hole in the big toe. Same blotchy freckle on the back of her left hand. This woman is my mother’s twin. her identical twin. But she is definitely not my mother.” (P. 1)
It’d be a lot to handle for anyone and Green does an exemplary job of taking into Mike’s mind which is far more ordered and under control than you might think.
He might only be fourteen but Mike has been through more than most kids his age; not only losing his dad, which tends to grow you up quicker than most other kids (something he notes at one point; he is a pretty self-aware kid but then, given his many issues, he has to be) but dealing with a raft of typical teenage issues including first love, difficult teachers, manipulative fellow students, problematic stepdad, all of which have been ramped up in their complexity by the death of his father.
Take for instance, the very normal disassociating yourself from your parents dynamic that every teenager goes through on their way to the solo journey of adulthood.
We’ve all been there, done there, and while it’s an awkward, messy process, it generally amounts to some arguments, a few sullen moments and a lot of playing loud music and thinking moodily in your room.
Problem is that Mike’s dad died in the middle of this, leaving Mike with ridiculous levels of guilt; he knows, thanks to Mrs. Newfang, who’s delightfully grounded and very much on his side, that he didn’t do anything wrong.
But because of when it happened, his pulling away from his dad, who was his best friend through childhood, feels like the worst thing he could’ve done, and the fact that he feels like he can’t talk about any of it, makes all the internal pressure building up all the worse.
For all the internal monologues of Mike that we’re a party to and the seriousness of many of the issues it explores including how an entire family can be locked in nameless grief and yet never properly acknowledge it, The Other Mother also has a remarkably charming side.
We are party to Mike’s role as protective big brother to wise-beyond-her-years Julia and bookish Charlie, who has escaped into a world of make believe and prepper lore to cope with a familial world gone mad, his adorably awkward tentative steps to a relationship with Sarah, who is also far more knowing that the average 15 year old, and his slow, messy rebuilding of his relationship with his mother, who, and this is where the title begins to make sense, he believes has been replaced with a duplicate.
While everyone from Mrs Newfang to Sarah tries to convince that this couldn’t possibly have happened and that pod people are not randomly wandering through American suburbia kidnapping the grieving mother of a grieving son, and Mike, in his heart, knows this can’t be right, all he sees is a woman acting utterly unlike the one he knew before his dad’s death.
As explorations of grief go, it’s unique and astonishingly powerful, proof that grief does a number on all of us, twisting reality into shapes that we neither recognise or wish to embrace, making it so different to what we don’t know that out-there explanations seem more plausible than the truth.
That Mike’s mum, like Mum, has been completely changed by the events of two years earlier, and her subsequent remarriage to slacker Glen, and that there is no coming back from that.
“‘I’m fine,’ I say.
I’m not, of course, but I’m fine in the way that Sarah is asking. In the way that everyone has been asking since Dad died. When people ask if I’m okay, they aren’t trying to find out if I feel broken or alone or lost inside. They don’t want to hear how much I worry about Julia and Charlie and how hard it is to take care of them when I feel like I’m going to fall apart at any minute. They don’t want to hear about how angry and disappointed and confused I am about my mother’s decisions and my stepfather’s laziness. They don’t want to know how impossible every day feels sometimes. They just want to know if in this moment — in the moment that they are sharing with me — I’ll be fine. They want to be sure that won’t make things awkward or scary by crying or flipping a desk or hitting someone. No one is interested in the long term. They just want to get through the next few minutes and escape before the bomb goes off.” (PP. 236-237)
Rather wonderfully, though, Green lets us see what while there is a lot gone wrong, there is a lot that can go right, and that while Mike is caught in a web of flawed assumptions and unnecessarily-kept secrets, that he also also the capacity, thanks to his unique viewpoint on life, to make things better.
The Other Mother‘s great strength, quite apart from a brutally honest but heartwarmingly lovely protagonist who you will warm to immediately and whose meanderings into grief-infused madness and wholly unexpected triumphs – there is one day at his school that changes everything forever and it’s a joy to read; buy the book for these passages alone – will make your day, is that it doesn’t attempt to make everything neat and tidy by story’s end.
There is some of that, and it’s cathartic for everyone for involved, but it wisely incorporates the idea that any great moments of epiphany take places against the open-ended business of living and that while it would be wonderful if life was as perfectly resolved as it is in movies or on TV, that it really plays out that way in reality.
Life, and particularly when grief has cut a swathe of destructive rearranging through it, is rarely all ducks in a row and even when Mike comes to a series of revelatory moments and is finally able to take some real steps to healing, there’s no sense that everything with his mum will be fine (though it will be immeasurably better) or that Glen will be a nicer guy and Mike will stand triumphantly atop the confusing dung heap that is being a teenager.
No, The Other Mother for all its immense charms and heartfelt insights, its celebration of life’s possibilities and its great releases of secrets kept and grief embraced, lives in all the real, darker moments and is all the richer for it, as are we for immersing ourselves in a beautiful, quirky meditation on life, loss and the glimmers of new beginnings.