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Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

“People lie to cover their tracks all the time but in the aftermath of true horror, there is a window – minutes, even seconds long – where shock drives out dissemblance and there is only room for a kind of devastated honesty.”

This a novel that never quite reaches its full potential.
First, on what I liked.
I found the discourse on class and money (the way it can change you in ways that you might not be aware) to be very compelling. We see how money can distance you from your own family, your hometown, and even your younger self.
The novel also does a brilliant job in evoking this small English community and of how unemployment can damage a family not only financially but emotionally (there is anger, shame, guilt, and pain).
I also found it incredibly realistic the way in which Marianne’s mother vascular dementia affected her loved ones. She only appeared in a few scenes but these were some of the few moments in which I felt emotionally involved by the story.
Nazareth is a building which emanates unease. It is oppressing and labyrinthine, yet I was fascinated by it. Kelly give this place a horrifying history, one that shapes the protagonist(s). Nazareth seems almost a character, if not the focus of the story. We are often given small details that consolidate this building’s presence:

“When I was at school, we wouldn’t say anyone behaving eccentrically was going round the bend but ‘getting the number six’. Back in the day, the number six bus was the one that, after they closed the railway, ferried workers and patients alike from Nusstead and beyond to Nazareth. I’d assumed it was a universal idiom. It was only when I went to Cromer Hall that I understood that the phrase was something I’d have to censor, along with my history, and my guilt, and the accent I shed like a shell.”

Now on the things that didn’t quite work for me…
Like many other reviewers, I found this book incredibly slow. I don’t think that dividing it into four sections worked in the story’s favour. It just created distance between each narrative (the first one is from Marianne ‘now’, the second is from Marianne as a teenager, the third is from a patient staying at Nazareth in 1958, and the last one is from another character). They seemed like these self-contained condensed stories that didn’t merge well with one another.
The first section stresses this ‘big bad thing’ that Marianne did…and when we actually get the details I felt underwhelmed. Other things happen but they never seem ‘thrilling’ to me. The suspense felt a bit forced (especially the final section when there is this unnecessary vagueness that seemed to exist merely to prolong the narrative).

The characters…they occasionally seemed a bit clichéd but they did have ‘moments’ of credibility.
Marianne was just plain awful. I disliked her not because of the ‘big bad thing’ but because she often sounded like a martyr.She is supposedly ‘clever’ and ‘smart’ (something which other characters, her degree, and her career, seem to imply) but to me she seemed anything but intelligent. She didn’t even convince me in terms of her age. She is supposed to be in her later forties, she has managed to leave her small town behind, made her a new life for herself, etc. etc., and yet, she sounds exactly as experienced and self-aware as her teenage self. She was so naive, so irritatingly self-dramatizing, that she would been a more appropriate protagonist in an 18th cent. novel. I’m thinking something on the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.
She spends nearly 60% of the book reproaching herself, bemoaning that ‘big bad thing’, her ‘evil’ deed seeps into her vision so that no matter her surroundings she will see a reflection her sins staring back at her (“The eels are back, and this time they’re sliding all over the sky”). Or she gives this dramatic descriptions: “His lips are white, like they’ve got bones in them.”. Jeez. When she spoke she did it with lots of exclamations marks (‘You saw her!’) and italics abounded, so that she often comes across as both juvenile and unrealistic. To begin with I thought that she was being sarcastic or disingenuous but she was turns out…she is just dense.
The other two narrators were less irritating but I did find that one point of view sort of ‘ruined’ what could have been an interesting individual. I was hoping to read from the point of view of a calculating, ruthless, possibly psychopathic woman…but what we get is a sort of vindication where we learn that she isn’t bad but simply (view spoiler). The last point of view is from a character who seemed an odd choice as she only appeared way back when in the first section. I think the book would have been more effective without this last section.
(view spoiler)
The main male characters fell in one of the following categories: stupid, dull, w*nker. There were two male characters who were decent-ish but had brief inconsequential appearances.
Marianne’s relationship with her husband was one of the least convincing things in the story. They acted like they just met each other and I kept thinking that he was her second husband or something. They have no real history, their interactions kept making me question if they really had just met or something (when they have been supposedly married for 20 years or so).
Lastly, I wasn’t a fun of the way in which people experiencing or suffering a mental illness or disorder were presented in such a patronising way. They look ‘broken’ and just feel everything ‘too much’: “she lives life so deeply but everything hurts her, it’s like – she’s got splinters in all of her fingertips and glass in her feet.”

There is this vagueness that tries to make scenes more ‘suspenseful’ by making things appear more sinister than they are…
The storyline is so slow and uneventful that I was temped to abandon it once or twice. There were few moments that I found enjoyable and or entertaining…still, there were some nice descriptions and although I think this would have worked better if all of the narratives had been from the first point of view, I think that Kelly’s writing has the potential to create a much more interesting story.

“My mind trips to doublethink: theories I believe in even as I know they can’t be true. Something was uncovered, something was found during the development of Nazareth. Or someone has spotted me and knows. Someone has seen old records, old names, and put two and two together to make the four that implicates the three – me, Jesse and Helen Greenlaw.”

Read more reviews on my blog or View all my reviews


An English Literature graduate, currently completing a masters in Comparative Literature. Born in Rome, raised near Venice, currently in the UK. Queer (in both senses of the word).

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