What are you doing to me Mumsnet Book Club? I feel like their latest book choice – Mother by Hannah Begbie – has taken me to the very edge of human despair. Again, this is a book that highlights the agonies of being a parent and oh my goodness what a bleak and agonising read this is. Reading it often felt like I was scraping my nails down a blackboard because on the one hand I found myself disgusted by the actions of Cath, the main protagonist in the novel, but I also felt overwhelming compassion and heartbreak for her.
A Heartbreaking Read
This book caused such a torrent of heartbreaking emotions that I had to ration my reading of it. Too many pages, too quickly and I felt that I would fall into a lake of bleak despair. This is a dark novel but it’s also a very important one.
The book opens with the ominous sentence – “We were a normal family for exactly twenty-five days”. Cath and her husband Dave, learn that their much longed for child has cystic fibrosis. A condition that I was relatively uninformed about until I read this book. We see how their child’s health slowly causes the marriage of Dave and Cath to unravel. We also learn the emotional and physical toil that cystic fibrosis can have on the carers. We see Cath becoming obsessed with looking for answers. Her days are spent scouring the house, making it clean and eradicating any germs: bacteria that could kill her daughter. Then at night she scours the internet for answers and help.
We watch in despair as Cath and Dave take very different approaches to their daughter’s health. Dave, who seemingly on the surface is more laid-back. He wants to normalise everything, he wants to focus on the now, he wants to focus on building a family. Whereas Cath seems to take an increasingly self-destructive approach. An approach that eventually causes her to be more and more reckless and leads her into the bed of another man.
Reading this novel did make me feel claustrophobic, which is very clever of the author, because this is what Dave and Cath’s marriage becomes like. Trapped in a sterile environment where they become afraid of the outside world and how it could kill their daughter. That rising feeling of claustrophobia meant that I had to take breaks from reading this novel. It made me appreciate how lucky I am to have two healthy children. Being a parent of poorly child means that you don’t get to take a break, there is no respite.
Despite my overwhelming feeling of sympathy for Cath, I struggled to warm to her as a person. I didn’t like her and at times I found her actions caused disbelief and anger. But again this probably mirrors the people around her. Cath is surrounded by people who love and care for her but she can’t see it. At times Cath comes across as demanding, selfish and petulant. I feel that Dave, her long-suffering husband, deserves a medal for his patience.
Cath decides to attend a cystic fibrosis support group and it’s here that she learns that it’s dangerous for people with cystic fibrosis to mix. However, that doesn’t stop her from embarking on a dangerous affair with Richard, another parent of a child with cystic fibrosis. I found it really difficult to understand why she would do this. Her very actions mean that she is putting her very own child’s life at risk. The affair is toxic in every sense.
I found the affair scenes very difficult to read and I have to say that I found the Richard character repulsive. However, I wonder if this just further highlights how Cath is mentally unravelling. How she is acting completely irrationally. There is one scene between Cath and Richard that is deeply disturbing and it could almost be rape. It serves to highlight how this relationship is about escape, it represents them trying to lose themselves, to forget the reality of their lives. Their relationship becomes obsessive and unhealthy. It’s two people who seem intent on destroying everything. This is certainly not a relationship that is about love.
Becoming a parent can be an isolating and lonely experience. Those first few months are a period of massive transition. But nothing compares being a parent to a child with cystic fibrosis. This novel highlights how it’s not just the child affected by the condition, but also the devastating impact it has on the parents and the wider family. A book that we should all read. This is a novel that will leave its imprint on you long after you have finished reading the last page.
Mother by Hannah Begbie is available to buy from Amazon.
Disclaimer – please be aware that I was gifted this novel as I am working with the Mumsnet Book Club. However, all words, opinions and images are my own.