The price of the pram in the hall

MotherKind by Jayne Anne Phillips (Jonathan Cape, £15.99, 292pp)
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The Independent Culture

Jayne Anne Phillips has written about journeys from which there is no return. Black Tickets, her audacious short-story collection, descended into a netherworld of poverty, drugs, violence and sexual exploitation. In Machine Dreams, a brilliant and affecting first novel, a West Virginian family's dissolution mirrors their country's plunge into the Vietnam war.

Jayne Anne Phillips has written about journeys from which there is no return. Black Tickets, her audacious short-story collection, descended into a netherworld of poverty, drugs, violence and sexual exploitation. In Machine Dreams, a brilliant and affecting first novel, a West Virginian family's dissolution mirrors their country's plunge into the Vietnam war.

MotherKind, about the one-way passages of birth and death, begins with a daughter's flight home to her dying mother. As Kate watches the shadow of the prop plane on the West Virginian fields, she feels the first stirrings of her baby and wonders whether her mother will live to see her grandchild.

Kate - poet and editor, wanderer, sexual and spiritual adventurer - has settled down with a Jewish doctor in suburban Boston. From the beginning, their life together must always include others: the wild young sons from his first marriage, her dying mother who comes to live with them. Kate is a perfectionist; she may participate in her mother's face-saving lies when she is pregnant and not married, but she is determined to do the right thing. Her baby will be breast-fed even it means cracked and bleeding nipples; her mother cared for at home until the very end. Yet motherhood stuns her; she becomes afraid to cross a busy street, and amid her fragmented life finds solace in a drawer of carefully-folded baby clothes.

There is not much plot in the novel beyond Kate's everyday odyssey into motherhood and death. Small episodes highlight her fears and changes: blaming herself when one of her stepchildren floats out to sea on an inflated boat she won at a toy shop; her good friend being beaten up by a charmer Kate might have dallied with in the old days; the purchase of an old-fashioned English pram, a ship on wheels which makes Kate feel safe. Her mother's terminal cancer, which she tries to control with treatments and talk of "plateaux" and the birth of her child, are all part of some mystery which Kate wants both to analyse and preserve. She explains to a friend in India that she comes from "a country descended from Puritans who did not accept darkness".

Americans do not believe in death and so are unprepared for their end. She battles not only against her mother's illness, but the sense of her own mortality and the chaos her baby brings: "Sometimes, holding him, she felt as though she held all the words she was not writing."

I suspect Phillips is too close to these events, that the book is an attempt to make something manageable out of a traumatic period of her life. The novel lacks the drama, tension and sharp observation of her other work. Slow, sententious, the narrative is overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. Do we really need to know she uses cloth nappies instead of disposables and drinks a lot of fluid because she is nursing?

The voices in Black Tickets and Machine Dreams were shocking, passionate, but always distinctive; in MotherKind the characters rarely emerge from static conversations. Kate's father, gruff yet fussy, is the one figure allowed to speak for himself. In glowing passages about India and rural West Virginia, or with Kate's anguish over her dying mother "drowning in her own eyes", Phillips's lyricism shines through and the novel comes alive. But for an assured writer, this is a surprisingly self-conscious work.

Would this have been better as memoir, or disguised further, with characters and settings which allowed Phillips to explore what it means truly to grow up and be mother to one's self? For Kate, writing "happened in sustained hopeful anguish, like the pain of separation, as though one's counterpoint existed in some denied spiritual realm". It is this translation of experience into another world, separate yet intimately connected with the writer, which the book has yet to achieve.

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