Bethan Roberts is an author who has really piqued my interest of late, largely because of Savidge Reads raving about her work. I chose Mother Island as my first book to read by her at random; it came up first when I searched my local library catalogue, and sounded like the kind of novel which I would enjoy. Mother Island is Roberts’ fourth novel, and it was first published in 2014.
Told through the eyes of two protagonists, Mother Island explores the disappearance of a two-year-old boy named Samuel, who is taken to a secluded part of Anglesey by his nanny. Nula Shaw, his mother, and Maggie, Sam’s nanny and Nula’s cousin, are ‘joined by old family history and love for the same little boy.’
Mother Island begins in Oxford, where Nula and her husband live. Maggie originally relocated to the area for University, but for various reasons, decided not to finish her degree, and has been working as a nanny ever since. The cousins met again after a long period of estrangement; the reasons for this are slowly revealed as the novel progresses. We first meet Maggie in the novel’s prologue, on the night before she takes Sam. The first chapter then opens on the fateful ‘hot morning in late June’, when Maggie arrives at the Shaws’ house as usual to care for Sam whilst his parents work, and decides, after much deliberation, to snatch him: ‘Once Nula has gone, Maggie does not rush. Her heart does not speed up and her breathing remains steady. She nows that this is the right thing to do.’ Maggie goes on to reflect: ‘That is the trouble with luxury, such as Samuel’s mother has. It can make you feel safe when really you are not.’
The narrative then shifts back in time to reveal the relationships of both Nula and Sam, and Nula and Maggie. The family dynamics portrayed are unusual, and quite fascinating. Roberts explores Nula’s experiences of motherhood in some detail, recognising that it is often a difficult series of multilayered processes. Early on, Roberts writes: ‘When Nula and Samuel were alone together during those first few weeks, this is what she saw: fists and feet, curled, cringing in the open coldness of the air. Startled eyes, looking towards any chink of light, any moving thing. Open mouth, pink and angry, always searching for her breast. When she held him he would swim towards it, rubbing his face into her shoulder, armpit, smelling his way to her milk. And she experienced something disturbing. Her mind became locked – almost paralysed – in such a way that she thought she now understood what women meant when they said their brains had “gone to mush” following childbirth. Prior to having Samuel she’d thought this “mush” must mean a kind of bliss, a swapping of feverish anxieties for the cuddly mess of the mother’s brain. But this was not what happened.’ Further introspective snapshots detail further struggles which Nula had in reconciling her past, free self, with suddenly having someone entirely dependent upon her.
I found Mother Island to be rather atmospheric, with darkness bubbling in many of the descriptions. When Maggie leaves, for instance, Roberts writes: ‘As she drives, she thinks about their destination. The place they are heading for is across the water, which runs fast in all directions. This makes it difficult to swim, unless you know the times and tides and where the sandbanks are. You have to be sure of all this in order to get in the water. If you’re not, God help you.’ One of the real strengths of the novel for me was the way in which Roberts demonstrates volatility, both with regard to her troubled female protagonists, and when it comes to writing about the place to which Sam is taken.
The backstories which she presents help the characters to feel more realistic, and add another whole dimension of interest. Although his backstory is largely absent given his young age, this is particularly true of Sam; Roberts captures the baby, and his moods and movements, so well. There is a real strength in the novel too with regard to how Roberts presents emotions, and the speed at which they can change. When the police have interviewed Nula and her husband about Sam’s disappearance, she writes of Nula: ‘And she goes upstairs, knowing none of them will follow her. None of them will want to face the monster that is a mother whose child has disappeared.’
Whilst I did not find myself completely gripped initially when reading Mother Island, I found it caught my interest entirely after a while, and I was soon invested in the story. I found Roberts’ prose style really easy to read; her narrative is well written without being overcomplicated, and she is empathetic throughout whilst still scrutinising her protagonists. She deals with some difficult topics with deftness here, and has created a well-paced and thoroughly satisfying novel.