In a way, not much happens in this book, in terms of events: Elizabeth Noble’s Between a Mother and Her Child is about emotion more than plot. When it begins, a terrible thing has already happened to the family at the heart of the book, the Barretts: they have lost a child. These characters have already experienced something worse than they had ever thought possible, and this book shows them trying to keep living when that experience is past.
The book is set two years after Jake Barrett, a golden boy and the family’s first and eldest child, dies in the natural disaster of the 2004 tsunami. He doesn’t appear except in flashbacks, and he never gets a narrative point of view of his own. So for the readers and for his family, when the book begins he is already gone. His death seems to have splintered his family unit. His parents have separated, his teenage sister is alienated, and his little brother’s special needs require increased attention.
Noble moves elegiacally through the fall and winter months of 2006, and then into the following year, as the Barrett family grows further apart. The youngest son, Stan, is only ten, and has less of a place in the narrative; in a way, his grief is the simplest and least cumbersome.
Instead, we come to know the other three family members as they process their grief. Noble gives each of them a central place in the book and spends several chapters looking at events from each one’s point of view. They are Maggie, the mother who seems frozen in time by her loss; Bill, the father who, through grieving has become estranged from Maggie and become involved with another woman, Carrie; and their daughter Aly, who is approaching the age and experiences Jake will never have.
Maggie’s sections, probably the lengthiest, may be the most difficult because she does not initially have a support group, a love interest, or a scholastic challenge to help ease her burdens. Bill and Aly each fit at least one of these categories. At first, Maggie has only herself, and it seems like that’s not going to be enough. Bill has this new relationship to distract him, and Aly has her own growing pains.
At Christmastime, Maggie’s sister Olivia—an interesting character I wish we’d seen more of—comes to London, where the Barretts live, from her home in Australia. She’s eleven years younger than Maggie, and her life is stretching out with promise and excitement. Olivia is in love with a nice guy, Scott, who’s almost too good to be true: handsome, romantic, and apparently flawless. She and Scott are at the beginning of their love story, while Maggie and Bill’s story is falling apart. (Noble gives them a resolution, but I won’t spoil it here.)
Trying to help her sister, Olivia ends up answering a personal ad placed by an older woman, Kate, who has a tragic past of her own too. Noble gives details of Kate’s life in flashbacks. Without spoiling things, it’s no surprise to find that Kate has an easy time relating to Maggie. By sharing their histories, the two women are eventually able to move forward.
The connections between Maggie and Kate, and the contrast between the different couples, are just a start to the many elements that recur across characters’ lives and experiences: different types of lost children, pregnancies and pregnancy scares, relationships that don’t work out, and relationships that do. While it can be challenging to endure the troubles these characters face, it’s rewarding to recognize these connections between them and watch as they endeavor to heal.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Berkley Trade. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.