BOOK REVIEW / The sins of the mothers

MOTHER OF PEARL by Mary Morrissy, Cape pounds 9.99
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STANLEY GODWIN met Irene Rivers at the sanatorium where his mother died. Irene had been there for seven years, from the age of 18 when TB struck and her own mother disowned her because she believed such illness disgraced the family (a brutal starting point for a book about motherhood). As Irene observes, it was really the sanatorium that had borne and made her. As newlyweds, Irene and Stanley indulge in a kind of surrogate childhood, but Stanley's impotence and the desperation for a child eventually send Irene first into a fantasy pregnancy, then into the role of baby-kidnapper.

Mary Morrissy tells this haunting tale from three perspectives; that of Irene the kidnapper, Rita the birth mother and Pearl / Mary the child. Parenthetically, biblical Solomon crops up in italics to adjudicate between his two mothers with one baby, as does Moses in the bulrushes, to appeal to the Pharaoh's daughter, and Adam in the Garden to blame Eve for everything.

Morrissy is best at conveying the yearning of Irene and the torment of Rita: exploring the very need to mother, and not flinching from the raw despair when motherhood is snatched away. Deranged by the abduction, Rita is convinced that tinkers have stolen her baby; she sees visions of an infant being incinerated in the hospital garden. Meanwhile her husband Mel, a cinema usher, self-consciously adopts a Gary Cooper mode of quiet dignity to face the press who have made "Baby Spain" into a front-page story.

It all comes somewhat unstuck with Pearl herself. At the age of four she is identified and returned to Rita, who decides to tell her nothing except that there was another daughter born before her who died. This wonderful beloved "Cupid baby" reproaches and haunts Pearl as she grows up, along with half-formed toddler memories of Irene, Stanley and another life. Pearl's madness is a great stew of the sins of the mothers, deep confusion, misinformation and violence explained by overripe metaphors plucked from the Garden of Eden.

Mary Morrissy's rich prose, for the most part, serves her compelling subject and motley characters well, although at times she is too reluctant to let her conceits and metaphors go. There is a nautically cast birth scene "with rolling and heaving on crashing waves" that goes on far too long before reaching safe harbour. And there are moments at which Pearl's phantasms become so figurative and literary you can't actually make them out.

It also helps to embark on the novel grasping the basic premise that most of these characters are either physically broken, mentally challenged or somehow dysfunctional. Otherwise, there are questions along the way. Like why would Stanley Godwin, a grown man who is impotent and has never made love to his wife, believe the neighbour who tells him he is going to be a father? Or when Rita isn't (understandably) unhinged by grief, why is she so wilfully, even dangerously, frivolous? Out of the whole line-up, it is probably Irene who is the sanest and smartest - and she is the criminal.

But there is unusual storytelling power driving this novel and a juggling of themes and imagery which is deceptively deft. With the $50,000 the author has recently collected in the US for a Lannan award, she will no doubt have time to hone her considerable gifts into works as compelling as this, and even finer.