Thursday, March 19, 2020

The almost mothers review


A first time mum struggles with her newborn baby. An alien examines the lives of Earth Mothers. A baby sleeps through the night at long last.
Written with raw honesty, Laura Besley's debut flash collection, The Almost Mothers, exposes what it really means to be a mother.

The Almost Mothers
Laura Besley
Publication Date
20th March 2020
129mm x 198mm
66 pp


“Glimpses into the multifaceted world of motherhood with honesty, beauty and humour” ~ Mahsuda Snaith

“Laura Besley has created a cast of memorable, poignant, characters in powerful, contemporary and futuristic stories, laced with a dash of humour, that reveal various nuanced, acutely-observed aspects of motherhood” ~ Emma LEe


Laura Besley writes short (and very short) fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online (Fictive Dream, Spelk, EllipsisZine) as well as in print (Flash: The International Short Story Magazine) and in various anthologies (Adverbally Challenged, Another Hong Kong, Story Cities).
The Almost Mothers is her first collection.

The Almost Mothers (Dahlia Publishing) is the debut collection of Laura Besley, twenty-six flash fictions about ‘what it really means to be a mother.’ 

Besley’s collection opens with ‘Mothers Anonymous’, in which one mother goes against the group ethos ‘we’re not here to judge’. In five short paragraphs, Besley evokes some key mother tropes to present motherhood as something outside one’s control, with varying results. She explores the compulsion some women feel to have children, even if their experience of motherhood doesn’t sustain them or is bad for their health, leaving the reader with the sense that motherhood is a disease; women are not in control; motherhood is greater than the individual. 

In ‘Playing at Being Grown-Ups’, two girls discuss the ramifications of failing to look after a virtual bay for a school class that predicts their suitability to be mothers. Framed by the portentous blowing of bubble-gum, this story will have varying impacts for different readers as it raises questions about who gets to decide who is fit to have children, which is a frequent subject of debate from back yards, to tabloids, to child welfare offices, as well as what happens to the data that is collected about us.

The third story in the collection, ‘Getting Ahead’, explores the futility of regarding a child’s development in comparison with others, as a sort of race. It pairs well with a later story, ‘Let Love Lead the Way’, as both stories mine the school yard antics of parents as well as children. This, like the previous stories, feels confidently written, from a distinct voice that has a lot to say.

From the beginning of life, we jump to the end with the next story. ‘Near and Far’ gives us an adult child’s perspective of their mother, revealing genetics has little power over warmth and food when it comes to bonding. It also illustrates the absence of opportunity for a child to consent to anything that happens to them, which, if extrapolated, raises questions for all of us, whatever age we are, about what age we must be to have agency over our own lives.

‘Everything’s Fine’ is another story that has its twin in this collection. A mother hides her exhaustion from a doctor, the subtext brought into relief by the foreshadowing of ‘Playing at Being Grown-Ups’. These stories form a cohesive whole and the collection feels slick and well curated. And here it takes a turn into the unexpected, which injects some energy into what might otherwise feel, well, mothered.

‘Down to Earth’ is a refreshingly brief list story in which an alien from outer-space contemplates the aids and impediments to human population increase. Besley’s stories are deceptively simple, and its often the smallest ones that provoke the greatest thoughts. Conversely, perhaps the least realised of the stories is ‘All the Children’, which, in its use of gendered colour for shorthand, jarred with the thoughtfulness of the other stories, felt like it needed to be longer. 

‘Wish Upon a Star’ was the least explained of the stories and the most powerful for it. It hints at Sudden Infant Death Syndrome without venturing into what could in less skilled hands become sentimental or irksome storytelling. When Besley gets the balance right, as she frequently does, the stories really stand out. 

The mundane routine of motherhood is countered by the excitement of shoplifting for the middle-class mother in ‘Hooked’, another great companion piece for the collection’s opening story, ‘Mothers Anonymous.’ Class issues run through this collection. In ‘Breakthrough in Motherhood Programme’, “unwanted motherhood” is countered with a sort of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ cure. Economics and class-discrimination, sexism and social control are all touched upon in this deceptively simple story. 

‘How to Grow Your Own Baby’ reads like a critique of the oversimplified advice thrown at mothers who have fertility issues and has a prose poem quality that supplies freshness at the almost half-way point of the collection. Perhaps it’s the change of tone, then, that makes ‘That Face’ stand out as heavy-handed; where other stories leave the reader to work something out, invest something of themselves, this story feels the most made-up. With a further edit, it could have the impact it self-declares it has.

2056: A New Generation imagines a future with a dwindling population and provides a nice counter perspective to ‘Down to Earth’. It’s clear that Besley has thought this collection through, tested her own story-telling skills in the process, successfully. Unsurprisingly, then, the most successful story in the collection is the one it takes its title from. ‘The Almost Mother’ is about what the word ‘mother’ means. In one interpretation, it could be said that it explores the word’s ability to destroy those who invest their trust in it. 

‘Supermum’ is a funny take on the standards mothers are held to and the hypocrisy of those who often boast their perfection in public while practicing what they preach against at home. The humour continues into tragedy in ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’ in this look at the ridiculous length mothers can go to for some time to themselves, all while their babies sabotage their every effort, then trying to give the impression that everything is totally OK. 

In ‘Breaking the Seal’ a woman contemplates opening an envelope that will give details of a child, presumably that she can adopt, with all the hallmarks and incumbent subtext of a mother putting off lifting a baby from a cot. 

‘That Apple’ is an excellent story about how women turn on their own. Another particularly strong story is ‘In Hiding’. Besley shines when she ventures into speculative fiction and alternate history, redolent of The Handmaid’s Tale, as she evokes the horrors of the Nazi occupation in this story about a woman who hides her child in a cupboard, which could also be a metaphor for pregnancy itself. 

‘The Unmothers’ imagines a world where women are abandoned by their partners if they do not produce a child. This story raises more questions and also highlights the absence or limited role of fathers in this collection. 

Besley is again on strong ground with this fairy-tale-like story ‘Hello, Again,’ and a fairy godmother character every new mother will recognise. In another fairy-tale, ‘Guilt Trip’, a fairy is rebuked by her superior for spending too much on “guilt dust” to keep mothers in check, cleverly sprinkling in reference to the real bureaucracy women face when they become mothers. Beautifully understated and probably my favourite of the collection.

Rivalry is a strong theme in many of these stories, bringing to focus how women are pitted against one another in our society, and ‘Let Love Lead the Way’ is a good example of it. Though predominantly hetero-normative, these stories cover a huge range of experiences women have prior to, during and post pregnancy, as well as when they become mothers.

‘Not All Linings are Silver’ is another story touching upon government intervention, with some comparable features to ‘Breakthrough in Motherhood Programme’, but it goes further, moving into the territory of bodily autonomy, agency and consent. A scarily prescient read. 

‘A Bedtime Story’ is a reminder that mothers aren’t necessarily biological. Which leads nicely to the final story, ‘The Motherhood Contract’, a story to dispel all the myths of motherhood. These stories, as so many of the pieces in this collection, would make excellent study pieces for students at high school and beyond and I'd love to see Besley expand her ideas into longer works of fiction.

Overall, Besley has produced an impressive debut, a tight collection that delivers some hard-hitting stories about what it means to be a mother. What is surprising is that it also reveals what it means to not be a mother. All packaged in deliciously deceptive bubble-gum pink. In a period of history where women's bodies are under threat, Besley's work is necessary and she and her publisher Dahlia are to be commended and supported. Buy this book.

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