Another Mother’s Son, by Janet Davey - book review: A mesmerising take on a mother’s dread of the empty nest

Chatto & Windus £12.99

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The Independent Culture

This is a spider’s web of a novel. Not in the sense of a plot-heavy, page-turning thriller – although there is a dark undertow of tension to the chronicle of contemporary suburban life – but because of the delicate nature of Davey’s writing, and her “search for a pattern behind the pattern – or an angel that would fit on a shirt button”.

Lorna Parry is a middle-aged divorcée, an archivist and mother to three (almost) grown up sons: Ewan, confined mainly to the attic, his nest since dropping out of university; Oliver, flown to further education in Brighton; and Ross, breaking out of his shell at school and pairing off with classmate Jude. Their father, Randall, is present when he wants to be which, given that he has a new family, isn’t that often. Lorna’s widowed father William, meanwhile, has found company in the form of Jane of the flowered socks. Lorna might as well be invisible.

Not that she seems to mind: she is in her own world too. Lorna’s internal monologue is one of magpie dashes that follow bright threads of thoughts. They elide elegantly, and it’s the quality of the prose that fascinates, as well as the darkly hilarious conversations between characters who lack awareness, both of themselves and of others’ perceptions. Even descriptions of the dreariness of everyday life are mesmerising, such as a scene at a teachers and parent’s evening at school: they, the children, are creatures formed by the lack of a “decent lunch”.

Alan Child is a young, failing English teacher, and Lorna becomes involved in the parents’ association bid to remove him. So far, so uneventful in terms of plot. The book-turning moments, when they happen, are out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye flashes: off-stage crises requiring an anxious rescanning of the text on the part of this reader. 

Lorna’s flights of fancy do become frustrating, even irritating, as they distract from the story but this authorial sleight of hand is forgiven because Davey’s aim is realism – and there is no truth but the one that we arrive at through our own, tangential vision. And it’s through the periphery that resolution comes: an offhand remark puts tragedy into some kind of perspective, and life carries on, different but normal.

A quietly accomplished story of shifting family dynamics with, at its centre, a mother’s dread of the empty nest, Another Mother’s Son succeeds in conveying the banal heroism of everyday life; and Daley beautifully harnesses the power of the mind to weave a narrative, even (and indeed, especially) from fragments.

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