The Victorians used to call their mental hospitals stone mothers. They thought the design of the building could literally nurse the sick back to health.’
Erin Kelly is an elegant writer. Her prose is undeniably British, with that lack of melodrama that I enjoy. While I think He Said/She Said was stronger, Stone Mothers is very good. It doesn’t have the narrative hook that HS/SS had, with the alternating stories and unreliable narrators (really, that novel is so unique that there isn’t really a comparison to be made, beyond the author being the same).
What Stone Mothers does have is a dark current running underneath, like a subterranean river about to offer something rotten from its depths.
Told in three parts, Stone Mothers is, at its core, about a decaying town, fighting for its own survival after the gutting of its central hospital. Nusstead reminds me of the Welsh mining communities after Margaret Thatcher destroyed the profession and closed the mines. Utter desolation and desperation. Fractured families. Men left to drink and despair. Women attempting to pick up the pieces. Children running wild, or worse, trying to raise their smaller siblings while their parents dissolve. It’s stark, and realistic, and Nusstead is very much a character in the novel, much like the old asylum, the ‘stone mother’ of titular fame.
It begins when Marianne’s husband buys her a flat. Drawn back to her hometown after her mother develops dementia, Marianne is nonetheless shocked and very much appalled by her husband’s gift. The flat has been converted from the ruins of the old mental hospital in the town, and the dark walls hold memories that Marianne would very much like to forget. When her ex-boyfriend Jesse – emboldened and triggered by her arrival back into his life – threatens to upend the secrets they’ve kept for so long, Marianne feels driven to protect the fragility of her family.
She approaches an old enemy, Helen Greenlaw, she who closed the hospital and sent Nusstead into the realm of miserable towns without a purpose, without a core. Now a peer in the House of Lords, Helen wields more power than ever – except when it comes to what Marianne and Jesse know. Cold and unfeeling, Helen appears ready to do anything to protect her own secrets, perhaps – even kill.
While the action is slow to unfold, the noose that seems to tighten around Marianne is unflinching, and I felt my own throat closing from the tightness of the writing. By the time we hear from Helen and take a dark walk through her past, I was absolutely riveted. There are characters I thought I’d like but ended up loathing, and one particular character that just reached in and wouldn’t let go. Her quintessential Britishness, that stiff upper lip, that survival spirit, the get-up-and-go. The utter tsunami of emotion disguised as cruelty or ennui. God. It tore at my heart.
In the end, Stone Mothers examines the true cost of the choices we make. Even when they seem right, or just, or like they heal an old wrong, there are still consequences, rippling out from that underground river, waiting to be borne into the light.
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!