January 22, 2020

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Mother's absence forces daughter to grow up fast

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/9/2017 (858 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Coming of age is difficult at the best of times and under the best of circumstances. Coming of age when your adored older brother has killed himself and your mother has disappeared is unfathomably more challenging.

But that is exactly what Agnes Fuller has to do.

Agnes is the protagonist and narrator of Motherest, the endearing debut novel of Alabama-based short-story writer Kristen Iskandrian.

As the novel’s central character and central storyteller, Agnes is reliable, insightful, witty and wry. Unflinchingly articulate and genuine, she recounts her forced journey into adulthood in the 1990s with keen observations and reflections on family, friendships, romance and school. She intersperses these ruminations with a series of pleading and poignant letters that she writes but, for lack of a mailing address, never sends to her mother.

Her mother officially went MIA the day she dropped Agnes off in New England for her first year of college, but had been missing from her daughter’s life from the moment her son, Simon, took his. After Simon’s death, Agnes reflects, her mother "wore an expression it had never worn before and would never unwear thereafter. The kind of sadness that engraves you with sadness."

Agnes manages to conceal much of her anger and angst behind the facade of freshman life. She attends classes, has crushes, works in the cafeteria, makes a friend or two and falls in love. Before first term is done, she also finds herself pregnant.

Her pregnancy, unplanned but not wholly unwelcome, turns her life around. Agnes moves home to New Jersey to live with her father and becomes determined, as someone who has experienced abandonment, to be fully present for her child.

Agnes chronicles her pregnancy just as she has the moments leading up to it — with candidness and curiosity, unafraid to express her fears and doubts, share her hopes and plans, or the dearth of them, for the future.

"This constant sense of myself is so far the worst part about being pregnant," she observes.

"My body is like a too-occupied room."

As she ruminates about the changes in her body and soul, Agnes also continuously and unabashedly stokes her wrath at her mother.

Beyond her resentment, of course, lies the universal desire, prevalent in literature as it is in real life, to be needed, nurtured and loved. What Agnes is missing from her mother she hopes, no doubt, to gain from her child.

As the author of this lovely and surprising novel, Iskandrian clearly understands both that desire and that hope. By giving the fictional Agnes the power and poise to express them, she proves herself to be a compassionate, gifted and formidable writing talent.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.


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