After striking out on her own as a teen mom, Madi Price is forced to return to her hometown of Brandywine, Virginia, with her seventeen-year-old daughter. With nothing to her name, she scrapes together a living as a palm reader at the local farmers market.
It’s there that she connects with old high school flame Henry McCabe, now a reclusive local fisherman whose infant son, Skyler, went missing five years ago. Everyone in town is sure Skyler is dead, but when Madi reads Henry’s palm, she’s haunted by strange and disturbing visions that suggest otherwise. As she follows the thread of these visions, Madi discovers a terrifying nightmare waiting at the center of the labyrinth—and it’s coming for everyone she holds dear.
What Kind of Mother presents itself as a seemingly small, Southern town gothic, thriller. It lulls you into a false sense of security, giving you the idea that this may simply be a darker mystery centered around the five-year search for missing eight-month-old Skyler McCabe. This could not be further from the true nature of this novel. We meet Madi, a woman struggling to provide for her seventeen-year-old daughter, Kendra after she reconnects with her father. This reconnection occurs despite his history of abandoning Madi upon the discovery of her pregnancy with Kendra when they were both seventeen. A lost soul returning to her hometown, Madi reconnects with high school flame Henry McCabe, father of Skyler. In the years since they last spoke, Henry has not only lost Skyler but his wife Grace who allegedly hanged herself. Emotions running deeper than the river that provides for Brandywine, events escalate that evoke a deeply disturbing narrative surrounding what exactly it means to create something, or well, someone.
Trying to describe this book as haunting would be an incredibly vast understatement. The sense of loss and grief Chapman evokes in both Henry and Madi who have both “lost” children is downright wretched. However, it’s not until the second half of the book that we are privy to the depths of those feelings that careen into desperation. The loss of a child is an unfathomable concept to even begin to imagine, much less experience. This sense of sorrow Chapman evokes is profound, stirring deep sentiments of grief within even myself, someone who is not a mother. The omnipresent sorrowful mood allows readers to empathize with these individuals who are searching for some semblance of resolution to their respective losses.
Beyond the topics of grief and loss, the idea of denial is explored at length, especially with Henry’s character. He is presented with a metaphorical fork in the road following a certain set of events, two options that reflect a somewhat splintering of the mind. What is born out of his choice which is rooted in deep denial is downright monstrous. In a way, it feels as though this novel is a catharsis for Chapman as a parent; many of the plot points work through the emotions, decisions, and greatest fears any parent can fathom. I can’t help but feel a sense of association between What Kind of Mother and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary in terms of the overall mood and dread surrounding parenthood.
Additionally, Chapman nails the atmosphere of this book, the basis of which is marine life and the various ways the Chesapeake River provides. A large portion of the book is given to the almost spiritual communion between the townsfolk and the river, the metaphorical giver of life. Without its bounties, a large portion of the town’s identity would cease to exist. We are immersed in the sights, smells, and overall feeling of life on the water nearly seamlessly. Somehow, Chapman draws us in with its alluring nature of nourishment and sustenance only to leave us repulsed and disgusted at times by the end of the novel.
One of the more abstract ideas and themes of this novel is the concept of manifestation and creation. While the overt message of this book pertains to parenthood, I felt a subliminal nudge towards the responsibility one incurs by creating something whether it’s a mere idea, a novel, or even a person. At the start of the book, we are introduced to a communal phenomenon that is often overlooked: the simple gesture of taking another’s hand. We observe this from the lens of Madi, a palm reader, whose work is dependent upon such a seemingly small gesture. So much can be said for the simplest action of taking someone’s hand and what is created in the moment: trust, connection, or vulnerability perhaps. In a similar light, the power of giving credence to certain ideas and feelings takes focus. Henry states, “It’s what’s behind the words that matter. Words hold power when you throw your whole heart into them.” The creation of these feelings holds a greater sense of power than one may originally realize; the intention and responsibility behind what we give our attention, thoughts, and feelings is a powerful device.
An evocative tale of love and loss, What Kind of Mother holds no punches. Clay McLeod Chapman’s exploration into these topics of creation, responsibility, and loss is displayed through this daring narrative complete with atmospheric prose and disturbing imagery. There is no lack of horror in this novel whether it be through emotional means or physical, grotesque body horror. This is not a book for the faint of heart based on its subject matter and the means by which Chapman delivers his message. While all these aspects sound disagreeable, this is a beautiful story that was deeply moving. It will linger in my psyche for a very, very long time.