Mothers in Literature – a few favourites from the shelves  

With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, I thought it would be fun to put together a post on some of my favourite mothers in literature. Naturally, several classics spring to mind, such as Mrs Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Marmee March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, but I’ve tried to go for more unusual choices, all highly recommended and reviewed on this site.

Realisations and Revelations – mothers trying to do their best

Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There’s a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches the reader off-guard with its impact and memorability. Elena Knows feels like that kind of novel – an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies, particularly the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society. It’s also a striking portrayal of a mother determined to discover the truth.

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Published in Italy in 1952 and freshly translated by Ann Goldstein, Forbidden Notebook is a remarkable rediscovery, a candid, exquisitely-written confessional from an evocative feminist voice. The novel is narrated by forty-three-year-old Valeria Cossati, who documents her inner thoughts in a secret notebook with great candour and clarity, laying bare the nature of her world with all its preoccupations. The act of writing becomes an outlet for Valeria’s frustrations with her family, her husband Michele and their two grown-up children, both living at home. Through the acting of writing the journal, Valeria learns more about herself, experiencing a gradual reawakening of her own yearnings and desires. In short, this is a wonderfully transgressive exploration of a woman’s right to her own existence in the face of competing demands. (It could also neatly fit into my next category as the relationship between Valeria and her daughter, Mirella, is particularly fraught!)

Fractured Mother-Daughter Relationships

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (Georges Szirtes)

Set in Hungary in the early 1960s, Iza’s Ballad is a heartbreaking portrayal of the emotional gulf between a mother and her daughter, two women with radically different outlooks on life. When her father dies, Iza decides to bring her elderly mother, Ettie, to live with her in Budapest. While Ettie is grateful to her daughter for this gesture, she struggles to adapt to modern life in the city, especially without her familiar possessions and the memories they represent. This is a novel of many contrasts; the chasm between the different generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred. Szabó digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

A brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. Riley’s sixth novel is a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away. The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee. This fascinating character study captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read in recent years, especially when illustrating character traits – a truly uncomfortable read for all the right reasons.  

(Needy or neglectful mothers also feature strongly in Richard Yates’ best novels e.g. The Easter Parade and Hanne Ørstavik’s piercing novella Love tr. Martin Aitken.)

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Perhaps the quintessential ‘bad mother’ novel, Oranges is a semi-autobiographical narrative, drawing on Winterson’s relationship with her own mother, and what a fractious relationship it is! Jeanette’s adoptive mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church, grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. In one sense, Oranges is a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young girl trying to find her place in a world when she seems ‘different’ to many of her peers – different in terms of her religious upbringing and to some extent her sexuality. But the novel also explores how difficult it is for Jeanette to live up to her mother’s expectations, especially when these demands are so extreme. 

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – particularly the fractured relationship between Deborah and her mother, Win, a formidable woman who holds the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s demise – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book on how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Missing or Absent Mothers

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, alongside hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Foster by Claire Keegan

A beautiful novella in which a young girl blossoms while in the care of distant relatives, effectively acting as foster parents for the summer. As the story opens, a young girl from Clonegal in Ireland’s County Carlow is being driven to Wexford by her father. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple has chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home. Keegan’s sublime novella shows how this shy girl comes to life under the care of her new family through a story exploring kindness, compassion, nurturing and acceptance from a child’s point of view. A truly gorgeous book.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

At first sight, the story being conveyed in Cold Enough for Snow seems relatively straightforward – a mother and her adult daughter reconnect to spend some time together in Japan. Nevertheless, this narrative is wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface, yet harbouring fascinating hidden depths within, a combination that gives the book a spectral, enigmatic quality, cutting deep into the soul. Au excels in conveying the ambiguous nature of memory, how our perceptions of events can evolve over time – sometimes fading to a feeling or impression, other times morphing into something else entirely, altered perhaps by our own wishes and desires. A haunting, meditative novella from a writer to watch.

Different Facets of Motherhood

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

A luminous collection of eleven stories about motherhood – mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, with a few focusing on pregnancy and mothers to be. Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, Caldwell captures an intensity in the characters’ emotions through her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

(I’m bending the rules slightly with this one as it focuses on a grandmother, but I couldn’t bear to leave it out!)

The Italian-born editor and writer Thea Lenarduzzi has given us a gorgeous book here – a meditative blend of family memoir, political and socioeconomic history, and personal reflections on migration between Italy and the UK. Partly crafted from discussions between Thea and her paternal grandmother, Dirce, the book spans four generations of Lenarduzzi’s family, moving backwards and forwards in time – and between Italy and England – threading together various stories and vignettes that span the 20th century. In doing so, a multilayered portrayal of Thea’s family emerges, placed in the context of Italy’s sociopolitical history and economic challenges. A book I adored – both for its themes and the sheer beauty of Lenarduzzi’s prose. (Hadley Freeman’s thoroughly absorbing memoir, House of Glass, is in a very similar vein, also highly recommended indeed! And for novels featuring motherhood across three generations of women, see Audrey Magee brilliant novel The Colony and Maria Judite de Carvalho’s quietly devastating Empty Wardrobes, tr. Margaret Jull Costa.)

Do let me know what you think of my choices, along with any favourites of your own, in the comments below.

25 thoughts on “Mothers in Literature – a few favourites from the shelves  

  1. MarinaSofia

    Great choices. It makes me realise that I am quite fascinated (obsessed?) by this topic. I would also add two French books about mothers which utterly pierced my heart: Veronique Olmi’s By the Sea and Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night. Grim subject matter but so well written!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I think I’m a little obsessed with this theme too, or maybe it’s just a coincidence that some of my favourite writers are drawn to it. Who knows?

      Two terrific recommendations there, Marina. I very nearly included Delphine de Vigan’s book in my list, but it didn’t quite make the final cut. As you say, it’s beautifully written, and a fascinating exploration of the writing process too! The Olmi has been on my radar for a while, but I’m not sure I want to read it despite the excellent reviews. It might be too devastating and traumatic for me…Great suggestion, though. Thank you.

  2. Elle

    My favourite portrait of motherhood in a book is still Rachel in Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border. She remains perhaps the only character I can think of who retains a fundamental sense of selfhood after the birth of her baby and who seems to actually like her child, despite the pregnancy being unplanned and her being a single mother for much of the book.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I adore Sarah Hall’s short stories, but have only read her most recent novel, Burntcoat (one of my reading highlights last year). The Wolf Border is a great suggestion – thank you, Elle. I’m adding it to my wishlist as we speak…

  3. madamebibilophile

    Hanne Ørstavik was who immediately sprang to mind when I saw the title of your post! Mother/child relationships are such a rich and complex area for writers, I’m not surprised so many are drawn to it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I can’t think of many novels that explore the relationship between a mother and her son(s), but the mother-daughter dynamic seems to be everywhere in my reading! In fact, Hanne Ørstavik’s Love is one of the few explorations of the bond (or lack of it) between a mother and her son, so I should have given it a full slot in this list for that very reason. And The Blue Room (which I didn’t particularly like) also features a mother-child relationship, IIRC? A daughter, in this instance.

      As you say, such a rich seam for interesting literature featuring complex, often troublesome dynamics!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fascinating post, Jacqui and the number of differing books just shows what a fertile topic this is for authors. Certainly, as both a mother and a daughter I’ve seen how complex those relationships can be and there are some great authors you’ve picked out. The Au book is a particular standout for me – still one I’m thinking about and talking about with people!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen! I found it interesting to think about the different groupings/categories I’ve highlighted here as they look at motherhood from different angles and perspectives.

      The Jessica Au is haunting, isn’t it? So slippery and dreamlike….and short enough to read again at some point, I think. May I put in a shout for Winter in Sockcho as a potential recommendation for you. It’s not a ‘motherhood’ novella as such as there’s a different type of relationship at the centre, but I couldn’t helping thinking about this book as I was reading the Au. It has a similar enigmatic feel, so you might find it an interesting comparison at some point…

  5. Julé Cunningham

    One of the great themes and you’ve put together an intriguing and varied list. I’ll add a few possibilities – first a mother and daughter writing about the same basic relationship – Irène Némirovsky’s daughter writing about her mother and grandmother in The Mirador, and Irène Némirovsky writing about it The Wine of Solitude. Then there’s Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and The Green Road by Anne Enright. Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge has a brilliant portrayal of a mother and daughter who are so close and yet so different, Ann Petry’s Country Place has several mother daughter or son relationships, and finally I don’t want to leave out Fraud by Anita Brookner.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, what a varied list of recommendations, thank you! I very much enjoyed Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise when it came out several years ago, so the others you’ve mentioned could be interesting to try.

      Maggie O Farrell isn’t for me, and I’ve been a bit hit-and-miss with Anne Enright’s fiction in the past, but Anita Brookner is a firm favourite. I’m trying to read her in order, so I’ll have to see where Fraud appears in her list.

      The Ann Petry also interests me as I enjoyed listening to an abridged audio of The Street a few years ago (via Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime). Thanks again, Jule. Lots for me to think about here…

      1. Julé Cunningham

        I’ve had similar reactions to Enright’s work, I either blow hot or cold. Her new book out later this year, which Cathy highlighted in her post yesterday looks promising and will be one I try.

  6. Liz Dexter

    What a lovely idea! The tragic mother, Beth, in “How Green Was My Valley”, which I’ve just read, is maybe not the best example, watching hopelessly as all her children die or emigrate …

  7. Laurie Graves

    Quite a line-up! After reading Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These,” I requested “Foster” through my library’s interlibrary loan system. I’m eagerly and impatiently waiting for it to arrive. I will be adding “Dandelions” and “Intimacies” to the list. And probably a few others. I was thinking about how the role of motherhood—indeed parenting—has changed over the was. Time was, a mother was considered a success if all her children lived to adulthood. (Jane Austen’s mother achieved this!) Now, much, much more is expected. Rightly so, but what pressure it puts on women.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely to hear that you’re planning to read Foster, Laurie! Claire Keegan has been a real discovery for me over the past year or two, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for her next book. Dandelions and Intimacies are excellent too.

      Such an interesting observation on the focus and expectations of motherhood and how these factors have changed over the years. As you say, in Jane Austen’s time, it was all about survival and marriage (e.g. securing suitable husbands for daughters, especially if money and social standing were dependent on the ‘right’ match). It all seems like a world away now!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! You should so your own version of this list, Grant. I’m already thinking that the new Vigdis Hjorth would fit right into this category…

  8. heavenali

    What a brilliant post. I recently read Cold Enough for Snow, and Territory of Light and Elena Knows was on my 2022 books of the year list. Iza’s Ballad is a brilliant portrait of that mother daughter relationship. This is a theme I return to a lot in my reading, it’s never the same story, such a complex area of family life.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks – I thought this would appeal to you! As you say, it’s an endlessly fascinating area, and there are always different angles to explore / different stories to tell. We have several favourites in common here, which is lovely to see!


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