Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Wrong Mother, by Sophie Hannah

The Wrong Mother provides a creepy look at the dark side of motherhood and children, wrapped up in a complicated mystery. The story is told in three different ways. Sally, a scientist and struggling mother of two, provides first-person accounts of her misadventures: she is pushed under a bus in the first chapter (the bus misses) and then discovers the man she had a dalliance with on a secret vacation the year before is not Mark Bretherick (the name he gave her) when she sees a news report on the murder of Bretherick's wife and daughter. She immediately begins to investigate on her own, with predictably dangerous results.

The work of the six police officers investigating the murder case is told in the third person. Each officer has issues of his/her own, which, while humanizing the officers, overcomplicates the story. We probably do not need to know everything we learn about these people. If the author focused on the two most compelling officers--Charlie (a woman) and Simon--that would be more than enough to convince us these are real people.

The third narrative device the author uses is to include the diary entries found on the computer of Geraldine Bretherick (Mark's wife). Here is where we see the dark side of parenting. The diary includes many entries like this one: "I have never hit her. Not because I disapprove of hitting children . . . but because sometimes I want to hit Lucy so much and I know I would have to stop almost as soon as I started, so what would be the point? It would be like opening a box of delicious chocolates and only being able to eat one." The diary entries are truly cringe-worthy. But the author doesn't spare the children either; some are out of control, one is a cruel bully, and another is a chronic liar--and they're all six or under!

The diary is one of the key clues enabling the police to crack the case--in a twist that seemed totally out of left field to me. And even when they have the culprit in custody, the police still don't quite have the story right, as we learn through a lengthy explication at the end (something we see in way too many mysteries).

While I have a lot of quibbles with the book, I did find it interesting reading and certainly the depiction of parenting would provide ample maerial for discussion.

Favorite passage:
My children spill into the kitchen like survivors form the wreck of the Titanic: damp, unkempt and full of complaints. I tell them in a bright voice that it's shepherd's pie for tea, their favourite . . . Zoe sobs, "Mummy, I don't want shepherd's pie for supper. I want shepherd's pie!"

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