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Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared in Cold Signal, Bone Parade, and Bristol Noir.


Trigger Warning

In “Motherthing,” Ralph grieves for his mother, Laura, who committed suicide. His wife, Abby, feels no sympathy for Laura, who treated her with hostility. But Ralph, who loved his mother, becomes increasingly depressed. He refuses to go to work and spends the whole day watching murder shows, as if trying to find solace in the bereavement of others. He also claims to see Laura’s ghost around the house. Abby is skeptical at first, but she starts to see Laura as well, although it is never clear if Laura is a hallucination, especially since she tends to appear when Abby is drunk. Ralph’s withdrawal into himself leaves Abby with only one source of affection: Mrs Bondy, a resident of the Northern Star Seniors’ Complex, where Abby works. Alas, Mrs Bondy’s daughter, Janet, plans to transfer her to Kingsmere, a low-cost nursing home infamous for its bedbugs, STI outbreaks, and sexual assault allegations. Threatened with abandonment, Abby comes up with a gruesome plan to save Ralph, Mrs Bondy, and herself.

The novel’s intriguing title, “Motherthing,” derives from an experiment described in the second chapter. A motherless lab monkey receives a rolled-up pair of socks, which the monkey treats as its mother, deriving comfort from hugging and stroking it. Since the socks become a substitute for the monkey’s mother, they are called a “motherthing.” In Abby’s case, her motherthing is the corduroy couch in her childhood home, which she would lie on and stroke when her divorced mother, Dani, fought with her boyfriends. Abby’s motherthing possesses more motherly qualities than her real mother, which is ironic because “motherthing” implies a non-mother, a mother-like object incapable of real affection. Abby realises this irony: “maybe the couch does resent having to do this mothering, but it doesn’t let on, because it’s a better Motherthing than this real mother could ever be.” The word “motherthing” also makes me think of robot mothers, the monstrosity of which mirrors the jarring, repulsive compounding of “mother” and “thing,” like different body parts being forced together to create Frankenstein’s monster.

There are three mothers in the story: Dani (Abby’s), Laura (Ralph’s), and Mrs Bondy (Janet’s). Abby resents Dani, so she has a motherthing to make up for Dani’s absence. Conversely, Ralph loves Laura, so he does not need a motherthing. Janet, however, is the anomaly: she resents Mrs Bondy, and yet she does not have a motherthing, as far as Abby is concerned. One possible explanation is that Janet’s lack of a motherthing proves Mrs Bondy’s motherliness, confirming Abby’s opinion of her kindness. But if Mrs Bondy is such a good mother, why does Janet want to destroy her? Could it be that Janet envies Abby, with whom Mrs Bondy spends more time? This would mean that Mrs Bondy is, in fact, a loving mother whom Janet does not resent. Instead, she resents having to share her mother’s love with Abby. By taking Mrs Bondy out of Abby’s care, Janet deprives herself of her mother’s love, but she also ensures that Abby no longer receives it.

I loved the use of a screenplay format in the climax. From Abby’s point-of-view, her conversation with Janet is not only surreal, but scripted: each of Abby’s appeals is doomed to fall on deaf ears, as though Janet has already made up her mind to transfer Mrs Bondy to Kingsmere. Abby’s murder of Janet is inevitable because it occurs at the end of a conversation that could only have gone one way. But perhaps the murder is not inevitable; Abby is merely framing it as such, in an attempt to process the horror of her actions. By constructing Janet as a fictional character, Abby further distances herself from the reality that she has just murdered a person. In fact, Abby frames herself as the creation of a playwright, who dictates her actions and is therefore responsible for what she does. A play also implies the existence of an audience; it is only successful when someone watches it. In the same way, Abby’s murder can only happen with our presence, and so she makes us complicit in it, absolving herself of guilt.

“Motherthing” overflows with astute observations that make the characters unforgettably compelling. I look forward to reading more by Ainslie Hogarth.

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