A Little Stranger by Kate Pullinger

The dark side of motherhood explored in a tale of terror and rage
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Getting on a plane for Las Vegas to escape your toddler is something that more than a few first-time mothers fantasise about. But Fran - a thirtysomething Canadian, mother of almost two-year-old Louis and in a stable relationship with Nick, a successful London restaurant manager - actually takes the plunge and buys a one-way ticket there.

In choosing this most gothic of American cities, Kate Pullinger's novel cleverly signals the depths of Fran's despair. She arrives in Las Vegas clutching a bunch of wilted flowers and her handbag. Fate intervenes and she is rescued by Leslie, a fellow Canadian who uses the city to exorcise her own demons by losing her real-estate fortune at the tables. While Leslie is grappling with the loss of her child, Fran is pulled back to her own childhood to try and understand her mother's spectacular failure as a parent.

Vegas highlights the gamble that hard-working, sensible Fran has taken in having a child. Louis's birth has cracked open wounds she has been able to keep buried for years. "There's this thing out there, and it's called a Bad Mother," she ponders. "And it's wild and wicked and it shouts and screams."

After several days playing the one-armed bandits and soaking up the desert sun, Fran heads north to Vancouver to visit her father and sister. Fran's mother Ireni, a Russian Doukhobor from the mountains of British Columbia, married her father to escape from the poverty and oppression of her childhood. But the stretch from a Russian-speaking communal farm to the exacting duties of an academic wife proved too much. Ireni descended into alcoholism, her terror and rage exploding into violent scenes.

Dark memories of Fran's childhood surface along with her need to reconnect with her mother. There is a deeply poignant reunion, and Pullinger explores the exquisite pain of a daughter trying to understand a desperately needy mother. It is only through her ultimate forgiveness of Ireni that she can resume her own identity as a mother.

Pullinger brilliantly depicts the murky and often dull challenge of looking after a toddler, unleavened by adult company. But underlying this is the universal fear that we will become the Bad Mother, replicating our worst traits in our children in an unending cycle.

This is a witty, charming and highly readable novel, laced with an exploration of those primal fears that stubbornly remain taboo among mothers.