Mum's the word: 10 new books that explore motherhood's complexities

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa and Easy Beauty: A Memoir by Chloe Cooper Jones. PHOTO: TRAMP PRESS, VIRAGO

SINGAPORE - On Mother's Day, The Sunday Times looks at 10 recent books that explore the complexities of motherhood in new ways - from a memoir by a mother with a disability to a dark fable about a woman who gives birth to an owl-baby.

1. Time Is A Mother


By Ocean Vuong
Poetry/Vintage/Hardcover/$33.95/112 pages/Buy here
4 out of 5

Three years after the death of his mother from cancer, Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has released a new book of poems.

His late mother Le Kim Hong ("Hong" is Vietnamese for "rose") is mentioned just a few times in the collection, but is, in many ways, its absent centre.

Time Is A Mother has many of the usual Ocean Vuong ingredients – intimacy, family, violence and the spectre of war in Vietnam. This book grapples with what it means to live in the wake of his mother’s death.


2. The School For Good Mothers


By Jessamine Chan
Fiction/Hutchinson Heinemann/Paperback/324 pages/$29.95/Buy here
4 out of 5

One bad day is all it takes for Frida Liu to lose her daughter.

Frida, 39, a sleep-deprived single mother in Philadelphia, the United States, heads into her office to pick up a file. To do so, she leaves her baby Harriet alone at home.

This sets off a terrible chain of events, culminating in Frida being sent to a state-run institution for errant mothers, where she will have to pass a barrage of tests. If she quits or fails, she will be legally banned from seeing Harriet again.

American author Jessamine Chan's debut novel lays out a mother's nightmare that, despite its dystopian trappings, is all too believably immediate.


3. The Push


By Ashley Audrain
Fiction/Michael Joseph/Paperback/320 pages/$19.80/Buy here/Borrow here

Blythe is convinced there is something wrong with her daughter Violet, especially because she herself is descended from a long line of terrible mothers. But when she has a second baby, Sam, she loves him instinctively and ecstatically - until Violet causes a tragedy. Canadian author Ashley Audrain ratchets up the maternal anxiety in this grip-lit debut.

4. A Ghost In The Throat


By Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Memoir/Tramp Press/Paperback/224 pages/$27.70/Buy here/Borrow here

"This is a female text," declares the Irish poet and essayist Doireann Ni Ghriofa in a lyrical memoir that begins with meditations on breast-pumping and motherhood. She interleaves her own story - personal memories, sketches of daily life and a cancer scare - with gleanings from the output of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, a lesser-known 18th-century Irish noblewoman who composed a lament after her husband was murdered.

5. Chouette


By Claire Oshetsky
Fiction/Virago/Paperback/239 pages/$29.95/Buy here/Borrow here

Novelist Claire Oshetsky's dark fable puts a strigine twist on non-conforming motherhood. Tiny, a cellist, is pregnant. What she knows for a fact - and her husband refuses to believe - is that the baby is half-owl. When Chouette is born, Tiny must fight her husband and society to protect her daughter's innate wildness.

6. Letter To My Mother: Words Of Love And Perspectives On Growing Up From Sons And Daughters


Edited by Felix Cheong
Non-fiction/Marshall Cavendish Editions/Paperback/224 pages/$24.98/Buy here/ Borrow here

Editor Felix Cheong asks the reader: "When was the last time you spoke to your mother? Do you remember the drift of that conversation, its turns and tide, its tone and tales? What would you have edited out if you had recorded it and replayed it as a memory?" In a collection of mini-essays, 20 people - including notable Singapore authors Christine Chia and Gwee Li Sui - write letters to their mothers, articulating what they might not have said before.

7. Inferno


By Catherine Cho
Memoir/Bloomsbury/Paperback/272 pages/$25.97/Buy here/Borrow here

When her son was two months old, literary agent Catherine Cho and her husband embarked on an extended trip across the United States. While staying with her in-laws, she began to see devil eyes in her son's face. A voice in her head told her that he had to die.

By the time her husband took her to the hospital, she was stripping off her clothes and screaming as the nurses tried to restrain her. She sang in French as she was transferred to a psychiatric ward.

Cho was diagnosed with a rare form of post-partum psychosis that affects one or two in 1,000 women. She spent eight days in the ward, during which she believed she was a character in Dante Alighieri's mediaeval Italian poem Inferno and had to sacrifice herself to lead her husband through hell.

In this harrowing memoir, she looks at the intersections of motherhood and mental health, which remain shrouded in stigma.

8. Nightb****

By Rachel Yoder
Fiction/Harvill Secker/Paperback/236 pages/$29.95/Buy here

In writer Rachel Yoder's debut on the feral feminine, an unnamed middle-class American mother, stuck at home with her two-year-old son, finds a patch of coarse hair sprouting on the nape of her neck. Her teeth grow sharper.

"I think I'm turning into a dog," she says to her husband. Soon, she transforms into Nightb***h, prowling outside after dark and committing primal acts of violence.

9. Easy Beauty


By Chloe Cooper Jones
Memoir/Virago/Paperback/288 pages/$31.96/Buy here

New York-based writer Chloe Cooper Jones was born with a rare physical condition called sacral agenesis, which affects her stature and gait. After she becomes a mother, Jones - a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing - journeys from Brooklyn to Rome, Milan and Phnom Penh, unpacking the myths behind society's standards of beauty and desirability.

The title refers to what British philosopher Bernard Bosanquet described as "easy" beauty - that which is more straightforward and accessible. Difficult beauty, by contrast, requires more time, patience and concentration.

10. The Waiting


By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong
Graphic novel/Drawn & Quarterly/Paperback/248 pages/$43.78/Buy here

In present-day South Korea, a woman tells the story of her mother who was separated from her son in 1950 during the Korean War. It has been a lifetime of waiting. Will she get to see him again?

This fictional graphic novel, rendered in inky black-and-white drawings, was partly inspired by the author's mother, whose sister was left behind in Pyongyang, on the other side of the 38th parallel.

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