Mother Land

Paul Theroux

Hamish Hamilton, £20

Review by Russell Leadbetter

TWENTY-one years ago the Washington Post, reviewing Paul Theroux’s then-latest novel, My Other Life, observed that the book’s energy partly derived from the tension between autobiographical novel and autobiography, and that the reader, merely by speculating as to which of its episodes had genuinely occurred in the author’s life, quickly found himself ensnared.

Thus it is in Theroux’s now-latest fiction, Mother Land, a lengthy and absorbing work about a large and bickering Cape Cod family, overseen by a domineering mother. The similarities with Theroux’s own circumstances are compelling; as he said in a recent podcast interview, “I come from a large family, my mother was very domineering.”

The fictional narrator, Jay (J.P.) Justus, is an esteemed author of travel and fiction (like Theroux), if by now faded and impecunious, and (like Theroux), he has two grown-up sons, a novelist and a documentary maker. At one point J.P. and his novel are savaged in a review by an older brother, Floyd; many years ago, Theroux and one of his books were publicly savaged by his novelist brother, Alexander – parts of which are quoted verbatim here. In terms of the autobiographical elements, Theroux says, “it’s 60 per cent accurate and all true.” It’s this teasing ambiguity – how much of Motherland really happened? – that, allied to some expertly-drawn character portraits and some characteristically lively prose – keeps you turning the pages.

And there are a lot of pages to turn: a fraction over 500, in fact. For J.P., surveying his family and their controlling widowed mother, has resolved to tell their story as he sees it, setting to work on an “autobiographical novel” that will be the final, unassailable word: “after I finished there would be no more secrets, nothing left to say. The truth of my fiction would put everyone else out of business.”

Justus, twice married and twice divorced, has found himself back on Cape Cod, just ten minutes’ away from his mother (she is never named, just ‘Mother’). She dominates the pages – and her children - with her curtly domineering ways, her scorn and petty malice, her narcissistic behaviour, her withholding of praise or attention or even pity. “On a practical level,” J.P. recalls of his much earlier life at home, “she was the enemy, but an ignorant and destructive enemy, selfish and sinister, greedy for power, attentive only when she felt her power diminished.” Every January 8 Mother mourns her baby daughter Angela, who had died at birth and yet forever remains an angel, a shining star.

In such a household, it is scarcely surprising that the family should have its own peculiar and destructive ways. JP, lawyer Fred, Floyd the poet and professor, Gilbert the high-flying diplomat, Hubby the ER nurse, teachers Franny and Rose – all go through long periods of barely being able to acknowledge the others, or are merely indifferent towards them. Any admission of weakness has always been seen as fatal. And towards outsiders, even the others’ spouses or children – they can be merciless.

Mother’s ways continue even when her own children are in middle age or late-middle age: she secretly gives large parts of her children’s inheritance to some of them but decidedly not to others, denies having ever done such a thing, and relishes the subsequent fall-out. Two of her sons break into her house to examine her bank books.

JP’s writings thus record the family’s jealousies and mutual dislikes as Mother, seemingly indestructible, heads towards, then passes, her centenary.

The story is occasionally impeded by needless repetition (J.P. himself says that repetition was a cultural habit in Mother Land and is “perhaps apparent in this narrative”). But there are joys here: Floyd’s literary-heavy quips and insults; and the barbs and juvenile bickering that pass for family conversations. J.P.’s own dawning awareness of just what Mother means to him, after all these years, is addressed sensitively. There’s a small but revealing moment, right at the end, when someone tells him that Mother had had a hard life. “I had never spent any time reflecting on Mother’s upbringing, thinking only of my own,” he writes, with sadness.

How much, if any, of J.P’s narrative happened to Paul Theroux? We may never know. We might take the view that it doesn’t really matter, that all that does matter is that the family dynamic has been rendered exceptionally well in these pages. One thought might occur to you as you reach the last line of the final page, though: thank God this family wasn’t like mine.