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Mormama
by Kit Reed
Tor, $25.99, 288pp
Published: May 2017

Oh boy, I had trouble with this one.

Kit Reed is hardly a new kid on the block. Her first short story was published in 1958 and her first novel three years later. She has over thirty novels behind her, including those credited to Shelley Hyde or Kit Craig, as well as a number of short story collections. Her books have won a number of awards and been nominated for many others, in a variety of genres. I love that she describes herself as 'transgenred' and that seems highly appropriate, given her diverse bibliography. I dearly want to explore her work.

All that said, this is a tough novel to enjoy. I'm well aware that quality doesn't equate to enjoyment. I've enjoyed many books and films that I know are awful and I've hated some that I know are great; some of the best films I've seen, I never want to watch again. Occasionally, however, I come across an interesting creation that resonates as much as it frustrates; the most recent was Nisi Shawl's 'Everfair', which was a fascinating novel that captivated me, even though I hated it with a passion.

I hated this one for quite a while too and, while it eventually brought me around, I can't really say that I ever enjoyed it. However, I wasn't glad when it ended, as I was with 'Everfair', and it still has a firm hold on me. There's power here but it's a strange power, as if it knows that it doesn't fit. Here, I don't mean in terms of genre, though it's not the horror novel that Tor seem to be marketing it as; it doesn't feel like it should be a novel at all and I'll try to explain what I mean.

On the face of it, this is mainstream literature with heavy influence from the southern gothic and a dash of the supernatural. It carries that telling epithet, 'A Novel', on the front cover. It feels experimental, being told in long, often rambling sentences that follow a stream of consciousness approach. Chapters are told from different perspectives and their narrators don't even have to be alive, one being the long deceased Mormama of the title. For a while, we wonder if they're trustworthy, not only because the nominal lead is suffering from amnesia. It often feels like we're not reading a novel but sitting in the lavender-smelling rooms of obscure relatives stricken with dementia who are lost in their pasts and eager to tell us about them.

And here's where I'm going. Of all the many novels I've read, this is surely the one that feels least like I'm reading words and more like I'm listening to them. Reed is more of an editor than a novelist here, collating an enticing set of thought dumps into some semblance of order, struggling with her characters' departures from the point but eventually succeeding in telling a vaguely coherent story. This may work fantastically as an audiobook, if the right reader(s) can be located, as it feels less like a novel and more like a radio play, told entirely in long soliloquys. Try this sample sentence on for size:

'We talked about pretty much nothing, you know, riding along with the radio on, both of us all happy and lalala, with her saying, this is where I used to, when she wanted to know what was the matter and me saying, Mom, is that a real flamingo or one of those plastic things when all I wanted to say was, This scary thing keeps showing up in my room.'

That's Theo, the twelve year old son of Lane Hale. Here's how she sounds:

'Eight years of freedom— boarding school, in Gainesville at FSU— correction, two years of freedom in college before I met Barry, the charming, shitty, deceitful jerk, and fourteen years of what-you-might-call-freedom as that bastard's deluded, as in, thinks this-is-forever wife; after fourteen years of deception and stealth financing to preserve that delusion, of impeding misery warded off by the arrival of Theo, with his spiky hair and that wonderful grin; after all that, I don't want my life back, I want MY LIFE.'

Most of the book is told in language like this, by characters who have no reason to talk to us and, let's be honest, no believable way to do so, given where we end up. That language though is often bitingly clever, with tone and rhythm and succinct analogy. While we might guess after a chapter or two of this that Kit Reed just stood in the middle of a room and dictated this novel off the cuff to a battery of secretaries, it's clear soon enough that it's very carefully crafted, albeit deceptively so. These soliloquys wash over us as if they're meaningless noise but they each contain details that gradually build into a coherent picture.

For such a complex approach, the framework is relatively simple, merely obscured by genealogy:

Mormama is Charlotte Robichaux, a lady born into Charleston society but too grounded to truly belong in that world. It's her daughter who's the natural: Little Manette, named by and for Charlotte's mother, who promptly takes over her life and shapes her into everything she dearly wanted Charlotte to be. It's Little Manette who cajoles her husband, Dakin Ellis, into building a mansion for her in Jacksonville, at 553 May Street. When Manette senior dies, Charlotte moves into this house with Dakin, Little Manette and a bevy of eight children, described by the man of the house on her arrival as 'one more mama than we need.'

And it's here, a few generations on, that we spend our time, with Mormama a spirit unable to leave until one of those children, burned to death in the undercroft, can leave too. Nowadays, the house is occupied by three elderly daughters of Little Manette: the twins, Rosemary and Iris, and their younger sister, Ivy, who was crippled by a horse. The twins bitch and moan like the matriarchs of hagsploitation movies and dream of the days when they were popular. And, into this wild backdrop, entirely dominated by women, as men always die off quickly, comes Lane Hale with her son, Theo. Lane is newly divorced and trying to re-establish herself financially, though she soon discovers that her aunts have spent the inheritance she was looking for.

The wildcard is the one outsider, Dell Duval, whose name isn't really Dell Duval and who may not even be an outsider. He's an amnesiac whose only possession is an index card with the address to the Ellis family mansion written on it. Eager to figure out who he is and why he has that address, he moves into the part of the house to which nobody ever goes, the undercroft where little Teddy's soul may be trapped.

And so this is about one young man trying to get into a family and one young lady trying to escape it, her son as trapped as Mormama, whose spirit visits him often, pleading with him to leave. It's about the evil that one family can generate and the good that tries to counter it. And it feels like it ought to be about a whole lot more than that, if only we can penetrate the clouds of obfuscation to see the clear blue story beyond, only for us to realise that it was only ever about the clouds.

'Mormama' is an odd novel. It frustrated me no end and drove me more than a little mad, but I wanted to discover where it was going and, once I got past the first dozen chapters of genealogical reminiscences, I found it easier going. I'm thankful that I persevered, even if I'm still unsure what the reward was. I don't want to recommend it but I want to know what you'll think. It underwhelmed me but it's resonating with me and, as much as 'Mormama' feels like it will sit in my mind alongside 'Everfair' as a fascinating failure, I'm almost compelled to seek out more of Kit Reed's work. She's interesting. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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