Book review: Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
Stone Mothers - Erin Kelly
As she demonstrated with her previous last novel, the phenomenally successful He Said/She Said, Erin Kelly is a master of sinister throwaway lines, little phrases and nuances dropped into seemingly everyday situations. The intentionally misleading opening scene in Stone Mothers of a blindfolded woman being driven in a car is quickly resolved when it turns out to be a surprise trip organised by her husband Sam, but an air of suspense and concern carries over. It's not just that the surprise turns out to be an expensive apartment or that it was converted from an old asylum, but Marianne's reaction suggests that the there is something else that is massively disturbing about Marianne's return to the Nazareth Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
You can quickly discount the idea that Marianne might once have been an inmate at Nazareth hospital, as the Victorian asylum has been closed down for a quite a while, the methods of such 'stone mothers' long ago called into question, government reforms and policies sealing its fate and also perhaps its inevitable restoration as an exclusive apartment complex. Marianne's history with Nazareth however evidently extends back to her childhood living close by the hospital in Nusstead in East Anglia.
There are a number of other factors that could contribute to her unease, and Erin Kelly doesn't make it too easy for the reader to figure out which are significant and which are just everyday troubles. Marianne is on a sabbatical from work and dealing with stress from a number of family angles; her mother's Alzheimer's, her artist daughter Honor's mental illness and self-harming episodes, even her comfortable middle-class lifestyle makes her feel guilty when she returns to the working class background where she grew up and sees people from her past, still struggling with the closure of an institution that the community relied on for employment.
People like Jesse, her childhood boyfriend and co-conspirator, and indeed, it soon becomes clear that there is some kind of conspiracy that still lies between them, something related to Nazareth and to Helen Greenlaw, a former minister now in the House of Lords who was responsible for the shutting down of Nazareth. Kelly drops hints here and there, suggests a terrible cover-up, murder, blackmail and piles the pressure on Marianne to almost breaking point. Whatever conspiracy or cover-up has been going on is breaking down in such a way that by the time you finally get to the flashback section of her schooldays in Nusstead, the tension is almost unbearable.
Unfortunately, the author can't sustain the same air of mystery and suspense, and what follows is just pretty much a straightforward telling of events of a fateful incident that took place in the past, although Kelly is careful enough to leave an important factor out of Marianne and Jesse's story, and that's Helen Greenlaw's version. Even there however there is little in the way of surprises or twists, but what is clever about Kelly's writing is how she maintains a good balance between secrets and revelations and it's enough to keep you hooked.
What Kelly also manages in Stone Mothers is to balance a personal drama with strong social and political content. The question of mental health is viewed from a number of perspectives; Marianne's need for a work sabbatical, her mother's Alzheimer's, her daughter's self-harm, and a historical view of mental illness (and treatment) in institutions like Nazareth that is quite shocking (and literally shocking of course with electro-therapy). The question of Care in the Community, the social impact of closures, political corruption and personal issues also complicates any simple reading of rights and wrongs in such a situation. Stone Mothers only occasionally touches on the same level of emotional involvement as He Said/She Said, but this is nonetheless another well-crafted thriller from Erin Kelly.