BAD MOTHERS, BAD DAUGHTERS, a story collection by Maya Sonenberg, reviewed by Sally Whitehill

In her new short story collection, Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, Maya Sonenberg weaves anthropological texts and court documents (and a Barbie textbook) with the magical realism of fairy tales in a poetic and measured prose that twists and deepens our sense of the conscious world through the lens of what it means to be a mother and a child.

Sonenberg is a particularly adept recorder of the inner voices, desires, and shames of her characters. “Painting Time”—one of the most convincing pieces of fiction I have read about the tensions between being a mother and being an artist—shows the anonymous protagonist reject the idea of past success for the present tense of her children. Throughout the story we bear uncomfortable witness to her struggles to find not just the hours, but the emotional space to create, yet when she is asked by a younger artist if she would have traded her children for shows at Seattle Art Museum or MOMA, she “surprises herself by saying, suddenly and vehemently, ‘No!’” It is a twist on the answer we have been led to expect, and a twist the character herself experiences, yet in Sonenberg’s capable hands it seems exactly the right and only place for the story to end—and this is why: we realize that the artist has succeeded in figuring out how to paint time itself using her own life and children: “Each individual brushstroke looks like … the stitches she had looped endlessly together to make socks or sweaters while the children read … these paintings [are] a secret link to her family, a way of being with the children and away from them at the same time.”

Time and how we inhabit different dimensions of it simultaneously is also a concern in “Seven Little Stories About 1977.”  Anna once assumed that time was linear: “she would be married by 24, have her first child by twenty-eight,” but as her life develops, she realizes that instead time is like the waves lapping on the coast of her vacation home in Maine, and it forever returns her back to the summer she spent there with her friends in 1977, a place of safety.

In “Return of the Media Five,” another woman, Susan (at least, this is “what her name is now”) is also stuck in the past. She has been forced into anonymity by her years on the lam as a fugitive revolutionary. Abandoned by her boyfriend for a woman who called her sister and played Odetta songs, Susan has spent years floating on the flotsam and jetsam of life, devoid of close connections and always ready to leave at a moment’s notice. She finds herself pregnant and this draws her past into sharp relief; how can she explain her history to the child? It is this impetus, the idea of child, which makes her understand, finally, that she needs to re-emerge into her own life and anchor herself.

Whilst children can act as catalysts to their mothers’ desires and self-realization in the collection, the relationships that children have with their parents are more that of a funhouse mirror, capable of reflecting back distortion and ugliness. There are more than a few ungrateful children in this collection, such as Mina who is forced to reflect endlessly on the moment she abandoned her father in “On Seeing the Skeleton of a Whale in the Harvard Museum of Natural History,” and Anna who struggles with her urges to throw her deceased mother’s possessions out of the window of her rent-controlled apartment into a dumpster below. There is Jennifer, too, the beloved daughter and granddaughter of a disconnected family in “Inebriate of Air,” who is charged with looking after an elderly woman, only to abandon her in search of moonshine and a man. She ends up falling from the roof of the house, killing herself. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do …” as Larkin would say.

Sonenberg examines not just the similarities between the generations, and what we give and get from each other, but also nature vs. nurture. “Hunters and Gatherers” is set amongst a group of mothers who are with their children at a communal pool. As each woman muses on the characteristics of their children (the pacificist mother with the army-mad son, the former lawyer who is sporting her daughter’s princess crown and mediating turns with a wooden train), their prose is interspersed with quotes from various anthropological textbooks and articles which attempt to classify and explain their offsprings’ behavior. It concludes with a sense of bafflement, the essential unknowability between children and parents, as one mother asks herself of her son: “What does she make of him?”

The collection is a sensory high-wire act and if Sonenberg has a superpower it is a synesthesiastic ability to combine senses. The spring rain is “delicious” in “The Other Road and in Childhood” and a holiday features “rocks alone like angels; the sky wearing a milkiness, as if fog were a diaphanous dress.” It is in these shorter pieces that one can sense Sonenberg’s interest in the mythic and fairy tales, and they are little gems, although, as with many such stories, inhospitable places for the younger generation and shot through with a murky sexual ambiguity. In “Dark Season,” a prince’s father dies and the boy escapes the responsibilities of his new kingdom, only to be imprisoned as the sexual plaything of an ageing sorceress. Sonenberg uses the conventions of the fairytale with a knowing twist. When the four girls of “Four Phoebes” are imprisoned and mutilated by a giant she tells us “The giant is their father, of course. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense,” whilst Mona, the protagonist of “Moon Child,” escapes her home with the help of an old man she meets late at night in the park and we are told: “I know you think the old guy’s going to be predatory, dangerous, that she’s risking too much, so young (she looks older than) her twelve years, but you can’t live as if each neighbor is an enemy.”

The economy and focus of Sonenberg’s prose allow the stories punch above their weight in this slim volume. Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters is a beautiful collection of complex pieces which deserves and rewards prolonged consideration.

Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters, by Maya Sonenberg. South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, August 2022. 150 pages. $20.00, paper.

A novelist and screenwriter, Sally Whitehill is studying for a PhD in creative writing at King’s College, London.

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