Mother Country is a blistering novel about the relationships between mothers and children in a world intricately woven by unjust patriarchal systems. In this heartbreaking work, the protagonist, Shannon, grew up with detached parents and can’t have children. She finds herself in Morocco with her husband, who is on a work trip. Shannon has kept the fact that she can’t conceive to herself. She meets a little girl in the street, persuades herself the girl has no family, and convinces her husband to bribe officials for adoption paperwork to take her back to Kentucky. What Shannon suspects but doesn’t fully allow herself to realize is that the girl she calls Mardi, whose real name is Yumni, has a family and a birth mother, Souria.
Souria was taken from her family in Mauritania and trafficked for several years until she found work with a shopkeeper in Marrakech and was able to create a somewhat stable life. Souria’s journey through human trafficking and abuse, and her eventual reckoning with Shannon and Yumni/Mardi, bring the book to a nuanced conclusion about the impacts of colonialism, race and racism, human trafficking, and the audacity of privilege.
This is a truly complex and well-written book, with more powerful themes than I can mention here. I read it quickly even as it gut-punched me. Having read Townsend’s first novel, Saint Monkey, I can say readers are in the hands of a novelist who gracefully weaves plot, language, and characters into each story. For our Literary Mama crowd, this is a compelling narrative about how we come to define and understand mothers. Who is truly a mother, and how does the unmitigated injustice toward women and children lead to the choices that Shannon and Souria make in this book?
In some ways, no one understands Shannon’s and Souria’s choices more than their child, Yumni/Mardi. Chapters from Yumni’s point of view are a small part of the book, but they are a powerful reminder of the keen and biting insights of children and how people underestimate just how deeply children perceive parental failures. In passages from Yumni’s perspective, there are visceral renderings of her taking in food, screaming at night, and observing the strangers who are now her parents. She is conscious that her actions influence her relationship with this new family, and she intellectualizes the trauma of being ripped away from home through psychological insights and detached references to herself and the family. For instance, when Yumni notices Shannon’s sadness, she refers to her own thinking as “the cortex,” observing that,
It’s because she used to think she could control everything. But the cortex and I, we don’t blame her, because everyone in the new land thinks this way. Everything here has a solution: the dirty dishes have a machine, the wet clothes have a big drying box. . . . I want to tell Mom about losing hope, how it’s a process she’ll get through.
Yumni can control her experience of being taken from her birth mother by distancing herself from her American parents through this kind of immersion in detail. In this way, “They can’t live in my world. They can’t perceive it or register it. They just cannot.” Folding in glimpses of Yumni’s thinking is a deft move that causes readers to question how much a birth mother or “adoptive” mother can shape or perceive a child’s story, particularly one as traumatic as Yumni being taken from her mother and home.
Townsend captures the journey of a mother’s grief and impending sacrifice as Souria tries to come to terms with her missing daughter. Souria recognizes that those not experiencing grief have an arbitrary timeline for healing. For Souria, “No one wanted to touch grief. Grief did not drop by to visit them at unappointed hours. . . . Her grief was like sour candy, to be digested and redigested until it melted away.” At the loss of her child, Souria’s grief expands and contracts, and she is afraid to share it with others, for, if they don’t accept it, it “would make the grief bigger in her hands, so un-sizably big that she could no longer carry it.” At the same time, in Kentucky, Shannon wrestles with the grief of what she has done and wonders whether she is capable of the kind of mothering she imagined: “Being a parent required so much extra fortitude in a life, so much courage that could just eventually run out, like gas.”
Shannon and Souria must also manage insidious interconnections with men and patriarchy. The men in this novel show up inconsistently and always with the threat of loss. When the women experience this incredible degree of loss, they innovate and keep going. For instance, Shannon experiences the slow fear of her husband, who had always accepted her and whom she married on a whim, when he learns that she cannot have a child and that she has lied about it:
Health insurance knows what squirrels can do but doesn’t care whether you can do it too. . . . Look at the gum in the stall next to you, but don’t buy a pack. Know that it’s eventually going to lose its flavor. And maybe this is the way your husband is starting to feel about you, after shelling out all this cash. And maybe it’s the way you’re getting to feel about him, and about this whole IVF thing. You’re tired of him, you realize, tired of his punky insistence that you can’t just leave your tired body alone and adopt, tired of the idea that his kids have to be his kids, with his big fucking ears and oversized canines.
In Mother Country, Townsend writes two Black protagonists who are implicated in privilege and American exceptionalism. This is not a story of a middle-class white woman from the US adopting a Black child from an African country. Shannon is Black, middle class, and carries chronic pain and the particular kind of isolated grief that characterizes so much of American culture. In the US, people assume she is Yumni’s birth mother. By contrast, Souria was taken from her family and tribe in Mauritania, her body sold for labor and sex throughout the book. In a story of kidnapping, trafficking, and motherhood, Townsend never lets readers forget the global tapestry of racism.
More than anything, Mother Country is a novel that made me stop a lot, and go, “Damn.” I felt that I was in the hands of a deft writer moving across the space and time of the novel with ease, conveying nuance and ambivalence, and immersing readers in the visceral details of place, from Morocco to Kentucky. As mothers, we often think we know what we would do. We think we know the lengths we would go to keep our children by our side, to protect them. But there are no easy answers about motherhood in this book.