Review by Emily Webber
The title of Laura Rock Gaughan’s wide-ranging and engaging debut collection Motherish comes from the short story, “Woman Cubed.” Dale is a contortionist preparing for an upcoming performance where Cirque recruiters will be in the audience. She imagines her dead mother present:
She visualized the performance necessary to win over the Cirque: transcendent, personal best. Her special fan would be in the stands, boosting her chances. And Mama, admittedly not perfect, but motherish in the way she’s always been in life. Pushy and mouthy and indisputably on Dale’s side (148).
This collection of thirteen stories published by Turnstone Press is full of mothers, pregnant women, and “motherish” types like caregivers, siblings, co-workers, and fathers. Gaughan takes the idea of motherhood and expands it, pushing past the conventional definition. These are characters who are mothers, but also ones longing for mothering or stepping in to fill the gap of a missing mother. A few of the stories do not seem to give enough space to the characters and so have the feeling of ending a beat too soon, but this is a minor complaint in what is a stellar collection. Every story is full of unique voices and interesting lives.
The stories with pregnant narrators are women who are not only looking inward but also looking at the world around them differently. In “Maquila Bird,” Maru is trying to hide her pregnancy from her employer for a few more weeks. She secretly sews decorative tags into the jean jackets she makes in the factory daydreaming about where they will go and the people who find them. There is a true feeling of joy that Gaughan pulls off well while still delivering a compelling story and multi-faceted characters.
In “Good-Enough Mothers,” Judy is at home with her two young kids shouldering the weight of parenting while her partner frequently travels for work. She watches the world outside her window—the teenage girl with a newborn baby and a sick woman in her thirties frequently left alone without care by her mother. It is easy to judge when observing from afar, but mostly these characters are trying to do the best they can. Judy speaks of the terrifying fear of having someone who depends solely on you:
I never used to be terrified all the time. Now, even good days, I’m plagued by uncertainty. My constant question, only half ironic: What Would a Good Mother Do? WWAGMD—gag reflex. Unanswerable question, because what is this mythical creature, the good mother? First it is necessary to find one (6).
“Let Heaven Rejoice” is told from the different points of view of people attending mass. The story shifts from person to person as it unfolds throughout the church service. Gaughan skillfully portrays these different voices in a short space, expanding the world of this story and allowing the reader to form strong connections with each of the characters.
“Me and Robin” and “A Flock of Chickens” both have main characters in emotionally tenuous situations because being out in the world and caring for others can be a tough business. Both stories have great emotional depth and come to satisfying and surprising ends. One character navigates a scandalous relationship, and the other keeps a watch over her vulnerable brother:
Finding my brother this way, seeing his skinny body again, it hits me all at once how he’s mine. My problem that will never go away, even when we’re grown-ups. It’s like someone lighting a match in my gut; I wrap my arms around my middle and hold on until I feel stronger (97).
Motherish contains vibrant characters, and each story is wildly imaginative. Gaughan successfully writes about people different from herself with original and memorable characters that break open the idea of mothering and show the bonds people form when inhabiting each other’s spaces. These emotionally charged stories will make you root for, scream with, and bask in joy along with these characters’ struggles and triumphs.
Motherish by Laura Rock Gaughan
Turnstone Press, 2018, $19.00 (paper)
Emily Webber has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and Fourth & Sycamore. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. You can read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.