Mothers, Alligators and Bad Men

Lauren Groff, Florida

William Heinemann, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781785757880

reviewed by Hannah Williams

Motherhood is an act that must always be discussed, must always be weighed and measured and judged, in a way that fatherhood has never been. When we talk of motherhood, we talk of breaking a part of yourself. We talk of vomiting, sickness, even death. We talk about flipping cars, of fighting bears, of improved smell and hearing and sight. One of the most talked-about recent books on the subject has been Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a meditation on how to make a decision where there is no answer. There’s also been Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel, an exploration of Doris Lessing’s views on motherhood, marriage and work, and Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers, which examines contemporary society’s attitude towards motherhood.

Lauren Groff’s Florida may not immediately appear to be part of this pantheon. It can seem more concerned with the landscape of Florida, with snakes and alligators and the water-logged boards of houses that break apart in the summer. And unlike its peers, ‘mother’ is not mentioned in the title or in the marketing material. In fact, maternal figures retreat from many of the stories, their relationships with their children dissolving like the ‘Cracker houses’ broken apart by the swamp. But it’s precisely this scope that allows Groff to tackle the subject so incisively. Motherhood in Florida is not represented by the decision of a white, middle-class writer to have children, but by the maternal actions we perform as women, by our relationships with strangers and friends and parents and men, by the people we protect and the people we fear. Motherhood is instinct, is nature; the storms that rip through the landscape, the slithering of poisonous snakes, the world we are tearing down around us as we blunder through life.

The first story in the collection, ‘Ghosts and Empties,’ opens with our protagonist stating that she has become ‘a woman who yells.’ As she is uncomfortable with this, and with her children's reactions to her behaviour, she now walks around the neighbourhood after dinner, ‘leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.’ It's easy to see her discomfort with her role – her emphasis on the fact that she is a woman who shouts, who subverts the idea of a mother who is persevering and calm. Our narrator talks of the other mothers she knows, ‘bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were, slumped in the corners.’

Groff's use of 'shepherdess' again invokes a kind of pastoral, serene femininity: a representation of virginity and purity that is subverted. The women she knows are hunched, old before their time, looking only for their children and the detritus they leave around. She tells of how she only understands that her neighbour is a sexual being because she mistakenly sees her getting out of the shower through the window, despite having visited her in the hospital when her children were born. Embarrassed, the next time she sees her she cannot help but imagine her in sexual scenarios. There is a disconnect, as deep as the 'Caesarian split' on her friend's stomach, between the mother as an erotic and a maternal being, even for women who also have children. We are uncomfortable with mothers having sexual identities, of the fact that their bodies belong to them, not their children, to the extent that their sexuality becomes indecent, only to be peered at from afar.

Groff contrasts this with the nuns who live down the street from her protagonist, ageing and gradually dying, one by one. There are no children to accompany them in their house, only their sisters, ‘withholding erotic pleasure for the glory of the Lord.’ They ‘rattle around’ in their large convent, with our narrator suggesting they are spare, superfluous, an ‘anachronism.’ Eventually she sees them leave, relieved to no longer have to live in a house that is much too large, much too empty.

The mother figure in ‘At the Round Earth's Corners’ is defined by her absence. After shaping her son Jude's sense of self away from his domineering father, and then leaving during his formative years, she has left Jude yearning for a maternal presence, someone to drive away the swamp and snakes that his father valued so much. In the end it is Jude’s wife who takes on this role, nourishing him emotionally and physically. Our narrator tells us of how Jude’s soon-to-be wife ‘fed him rice pudding’ during their courtship, a subversion of the meals he refuses from his mother when they are briefly reunited as adults. She even kills a snake with ‘her bare heel,’ a direct parallel to his mother’s decision to kill all the snakes in the house with a garden hoe before she moved Jude to the coast. Florida is littered with references to women beheading snakes or crushing them underfoot. As the narrator of the aptly titled Snake Stories bemoans: ‘I can’t get away from them, snakes.’ They lurk in every corner, always waiting for a fall.

The displacement of the maternal role is also apparent in ‘Dog Goes Wolf,’ where the mother of two young girls, and then the woman tasked with taking caring of them, leave them at the behest of their male partners. As in ‘At the Round Earth's Corners,’ Groff positions the maternal as a direct contrast to the brutality of masculinity, with the elder sister forced to take on the role of protector, hiding her sibling from men that come to the island where they live. This knowledge is presented as instinctual – the elder sister feels that ‘something whispered silently to her’ let her know one was a ‘bad man.’ The maternal is presented as a necessary and organic desire to protect, an aptitude that is gained not through giving birth but from being a woman in a fraught and dangerous world. But the elder sister’s maternal defence of her sister cannot continue forever. We learn that although ‘for a long time’ she was able to sustain her support for her little sister, who ‘only ever wanted to be held,’ the younger girl eventually finds herself in a relationship with man who abuses her desire for love. Being a mother means being in constant conflict with the terror of men’s aggression – a war that is always being fought but can never truly be won.

It's no surprise that the weakest stories are the ones set outside of Florida, though they bear its legacy like a faded brand. Twice, Groff sets her characters in the French countryside. In the first, ‘For the Love of God, For the Love of God,’ we meet Amanda and her husband Grant, who are on holiday with the former's old friend Genevieve, her chronically ill husband Manfred, and their son Leo. Childless herself, but an object of Leo’s adoration, Amanda is envious of her friend's seemingly lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, Grant is having an affair with Genevieve and about to leave Amanda to go to university upstate. The other story is ‘Yport,’ about a mother who takes her children to see Guy de Maupassant’s hometown before realising that she hates the writer, and that her children do not share her enthusiasm for France. Whilst I have no real objections to these stories, they lack the energy of those set in Florida. Gone are the swamps, with their plump vines and pale-bellied alligators, and taking their place are milquetoast versions of European family dramas. Whereas Groff’s Florida always feels lived in, regardless of the protagonist or plot of the story, her France is alienating in a way that is jarring.

Groff’s Florida is a mother in itself, as full of the capacity to destroy as it is to nurture. The biblical hurricane that conjures images of the dead in ‘Eyewall,’ the heavy torrent in ‘Flower Hunters’ – the landscape is a mother furious at the beings destroying her creations. It’s during these moments that Groff's languorous prose bursts apart with white, hot flashes of violence. Her sentences run into each other like an electrical current, building charge until the narrative is destabilised, a new world emerging from the aftermath of the storm. It’s utterly thrilling to read, a tightrope of restraint and excess.