Everyone knows a Josephine Hurst, though they may not be aware of it. A psychological sniper who controls her children with well-placed taunts and threats, a woman capable of flying into a rage at the least of provocations: gargoyles such as she, matriarch of the family portrayed in Koren Zailckas’s Mother, Mother, are skilled at composing themselves when company calls.
“‘You love me, right? Tell me you think I’m a good mom and a good teacher. Tell me you don’t hate me as much as Rose and Violet do. It’s you and me against everyone, Will, and there can’t be any secrets between us,’” writes Zailckas. And Josephine capably swivels between master manipulator and full-on monster mode: “Josephine’s shriek was animal. ‘You don’t know evil! You haven’t been through a fraction of what I’ve been through in my life!’
Whether you identify or not (I hope), Mother, Mother is utterly compelling, a dark night flashlight page-turner. What’s the story with these Hudson Valley Hursts? Douglas, an alcoholic IT whiz, and Josephine have three children: picture-perfect Rose has fled to New York City to live with an anonymous boyfriend; high-schooler Violet experiments with religion and organic psychedelics; and Will, mother’s twelve-year-old pet, homeschooled on account of autism and epilepsy diagnoses of dubious origin. After a particularly stilted evening of family togetherness, Violet is committed to Fallkill Psychiatric for attacking Will with a knife. Doug was drunk, Violet was high on seeds, Will experienced an epilepsy-attributed blackout and Rose wasn’t there—or was she? No reliable narrator exists, save Josephine, and she’s anything but.
Mother, Mother is Zailckas’s first novel. She made her name as a memoirist: the phenomenal Smashed (2005) recalled Zailckas’s coming of age under the influence of binge drinking, and Fury (2010) chronicled her withdrawal from that emotional anesthetization. The challenges of writing fiction and non-fiction differ, says Zailckas: “Memoir is an exercise in oversharing, just blabbing all the details. Trying to keep secrets and hold back was tricky. There’s much more restraint involved.”
While Mother, Mother is fictitious, Zailckas admits firsthand knowledge of familial dissonance. “I grew up in a family where things weren’t always what they appeared to be,” says Zailckas. Fiction proved a safe way to explore the various stages of coming to terms with that upbringing, shifting narration between Will and Violet. “Will is enmeshed with his mom and believes—hook, line and sinker—the things that she tells him. Violet is a bit more adult, has a bit more information, and can see what’s really going on with her family and where the issues are coming from,” she says. Violet is on the cusp of childhood and young adulthood and in the midst of a mental growth spurt: “Violet thought again of the way Nicholas said dangerous people try to keep you off-balance and constantly questioning yourself,” Zailckas writes. Later: “Other people don’t live in fear of someone else’s reactions. They don’t relentlessly stress out about getting into trouble.”
While often canonized in literature, mothers run the gamut like anyone else. Zailckas hopes that those who identify with the Hursts will find comfort in the fact that they’re not the only ones, and that children of stable, sweet mothers will approach the story with an open mind. “If people who are coming from a really normal functional family can sort of understand this kind of upbringing and the lasting impact it has on you and bleeds into your adult life, that would be a huge thing. Also, if people can just know that they’re not alone and maybe have a little more more language to explain what’s going on. It’s always a huge relief to talk to people who’ve had similar experiences,” says Zailckas.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.