On the face of it, there’s little redemption for Fran. She’s young, good-looking, and in possession of all her limbs and faculties. She lives in London, in her own flat. Her son Louis is a miracle when he’s well-behaved and an advertisement for contraception when throwing a tantrum—i.e., a normal toddler. Fran’s husband Nick is supportive and understanding despite his demanding job as a restaurant manager.
Fran loves her child, but finds she’s teetering between anger and resentment every moment when Louis isn’t asleep. She was once valued in her workplace and had taken pride in her career; motherhood, with its leaden heft of thanklessness and isolation, has led to a profound erosion of self-esteem. Fran feels she has lost herself to “nappies and boredom and rage and somedays it’s all [she] can do to walk down the street, to smile at Louis, to get up, get dressed, to breathe.”
Fran starts with small abandonments. She leaves Louis in at a grocery shop, and almost takes a bus home before turning back to get her son. She leaves Louis asleep in her apartment and goes for a walk; he’s still sleeping peacefully when she returns. But things fall apart when Fran reaches Heathrow with her passport and credit card. Whether she returns home from Vegas or not provides the suspense to this story.
Is motherhood really all that grueling, ask the unbelievers. Surely it is natural and instinctive for a mother to love her child. And how hard is it to slap on a diaper? To thrust a bottle into a puling mouth?
As anyone who’s been there knows, it is incredibly hard work—especially if there is no network of family and friends to cut the mother some slack. Nick and Fran have no family help, for Fran’s people live in Canada, while Nick’s parents are dead. Their friends are either busy with their own families or “childless and uncomprehending.”
This book should be declared mandatory reading for those planning to embark on parenthood without a regiment of babyminders. For the first-time parent, the baby often arrives with the force of a bomb, turning order into chaos overnight. Suddenly, the mother must perform a series of never-ending chores just as her sleep-deprived body is recovering from the trauma of childbirth—all with little recognition or acknowledgement. Pullinger’s intimate and utterly convincing account details it all—the physical pain of labor, childbirth, and nursing followed by the “special tedium” of caring for a small child, as well as the societal expectations that cast these tasks as desirable and natural while brooking no other vision of motherhood.
While this novel clearly focuses upon the grimmer aspects of parenting, Pullinger is quick to acknowledge the joys of being a mother—and the mothers who find the experience unconditionally rewarding. The key to A Little Stranger’s excellence lies in such fine balances; it is impossible to decide if Fran is more to be pitied or blamed. In another instance of Pullinger’s meticulous even-handedness, Fran befriends Leslie, a mother who’s lost her four-year-old daughter in a horrible, senseless accident. No other plot device could have diminished Fran’s troubles as effectively; that we still want to lead Fran to the nearest day-care centre rather than prison is testament to Pullinger’s skill at character development and her sympathetic treatment of motherhood.
But Fran’s issues, we learn, are deeper than they seem. Fran’s mother Ireni is an alcoholic who abandoned her own children. Ireni has her own tragic reasons for her addiction. It’s a situation where everything is wrong and no one is to blame.
These narrative developments left me somewhat unsatisfied. Perhaps Pullinger felt Fran’s actions required a compelling backstory if the book wasn’t to alienate its readers, but now that the metaphorical scales have been tipped in Fran’s favour, the balance that informs this discussion of motherhood is lost. I felt almost as though Pullinger was ducking the real issue—that being a mother, on its own terms, is challenging enough to drive some women to recklessness and self-destruction. It’s been described as society’s last taboo: the assumption that every woman will place her baby’s unending needs ahead of her own. A Little Stranger, for all its profound insights into motherhood, leaves this taboo stirred but not shaken.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)