‘In the beginning, there was the word . . . ” So we are told just before the elegiac end of Brit Bennett’s debut novel, “The Mothers.’’
But first: In the beginning of “The Mothers,’’ there is a voice. We’re not sure at first who is speaking to us, but soon learn it’s the collective voice of the Mothers, a group of older women at Upper Room church whose collective job it is to pray for the congregation. They pray for the sick and the wayward, the alcoholic and the grieving. And they pray for Nadia Turner, a 17-year-old beauty who, since her mother’s suicide, “had earned a wild reputation — she was young and scared and trying to hide her scared in her prettiness.”
Nadia is also ambitious — she is the first in her black, Southern California congregation to win an academic scholarship to a major university. When in her senior year she dates the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, and becomes pregnant, she decides to get an abortion, a procedure for which Luke pays — how he gets the cash is one of the book’s pivotal mysteries — but from which he fails to pick her up.
The young couple’s secret, and its eventual discovery, haunts “The Mothers,’’ not only because abortion is akin to murder at Upper Room but because neither Luke nor Nadia can let go of their imagined baby, or each other. Nadia stays far away, first at college and then law school, while Luke, after a sobering crisis, takes comfort in the humbler but steady presence of Nadia’s best friend, Aubrey. Yet when Nadia returns to town seven years after the abortion, the trio’s fragile peace, and subsequently Upper Room itself, begins to disintegrate.
The final climax is somewhat hastily told. But this does little to spoil the pleasures of this extraordinary novel, which mines human relationships so deeply and with such empathy that minor plot and pacing quibbles (Is seven years really enough for the kind of reckoning Bennett is after?) are forgiven. Bennett unspools her story with unusual patience, developing even secondary characters, like the church’s flinty, righteous “first lady” and Nadia’s emotionally crippled father, into full, if flawed, players in Upper Room’s web of secrets and shame.
Bennett’s tolerance for ambiguity is a strong match for her charged investigation into motherhood and daughterhood, and the spectrum of conflicted feelings both can engender. Aubrey has left her mother, who would not leave her abusive boyfriend, while Nadia, in the space of a year, loses her mother and begins and ends a pregnancy. As she learns more about Aubrey’s past, she feels “almost lucky . . . Her mother was dead, but what could be worse than knowing that your mother was alive somewhere but she wanted a man who hit her more than she wanted you?”
Bennett can write exquisite prose, as when Aubrey observes of her deepening friendship with Nadia: “It was strange, learning the contours of another’s loneliness. You could never know it all at once; like stepping inside a dark cave, you felt along the walls, bumped into jagged edges.” Or when The Mothers describe what it is to pray: “We don’t think of ourselves as ‘prayer warriors.’ A man must’ve come up with that term — men think anything difficult is war. But prayer is more delicate than battle . . . You close your eyes and listen to a request [for prayer]. Then you have to slip inside [someone’s] body.”
It’s a powerful image. But these lines also point to a certain shakiness in the book’s central narrative conceit: Are we to assume that even when the Mothers stop overtly narrating, they are still telling this story, that every description, action, and insight in the book is their “slip[ping] inside” someone else’s experience? This possibility is supported by Bennett’s repeated chapter structure: Each begins in the Mothers’ first-person plural voice before transitioning into a more standard third-person narration.
The notion of the Mothers in a sense praying the whole story into existence is intriguing, but more as a cerebral exercise than a felt experience. In part this is because the Mothers are not developed as characters; instead, Bennett keeps them mostly unnamed and unseen. Her intention, perhaps, is to give them the air of the divine, but the result is a sapping of the book’s full emotional potential. In the end, it’s Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke that we care about. And it’s hard not to wonder whether these characters, brought to such vivid life under Bennett’s deft touch, might have been enough.
By Brit Bennett
Riverhead, 278 pp., $26
Anna Solomon is the author of two novels, the recently released “Leaving Lucy Pear’’ and “The Little Bride.” Follow her on Twitter @SolomonAnna.