Mother Island by Bethan Roberts

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Bethan Roberts Mother Island

Bethan Roberts’s fourth novel takes on one of the primal fears of all parents – that of someone abducting your child. Mother Island is not, however, a thriller – it is a drama though and a compelling one. Roberts uses the abduction to analyse the effects of failed and failing relationships, loneliness and teenage damage that can last into adulthood.

The prologue recounts the abduction. The night before, Maggie dreams of her brother, and the island. The next morning in Oxford, Nula and little Samuel wait for their nanny, Maggie, to arrive, then Nula goes to work. Maggie goes to toddler group as normal, then loads Samuel and their bags into the car and sets off:

‘As she drives, she thinks about their destination. The place they are heading for is across the water, which runs fast in all directions. […]

Joe used to tell her, when they were younger: ‘This island is the Mother of Wales.’ […] ‘I think it’s because people come here for holidays, like we used to. They come here when they need a rest.’

Nula doesn’t panic immediately. Maggie is her cousin and is mildly eccentric after all. But soon the worry turns to something more serious. She can’t get hold of her husband Greg. She imagines that he’s abandoned her too…

The entire novel is set up in this handful of pages, and already we’re full of questions.  Most importantly we need to know if there’s history between Maggie and Nula to make her snatch her cousin’s baby. This and many more questions will get answered in the novel as it flashes forwards and backwards between past, recent past and the present, building up a disturbing psychological drama as layers of family history and the lasting effects of a series of little betrayals are uncovered.

It stems from events that happened when Maggie was sixteen, but the seeds were sown years before when Maggie’s father relocated their family to the island of Anglesey in north-west Wales. Maggie’s mother was born there, and the return is to try to rebuild his relationship with his wife.

Then, that summer, it was announced that Maggie’s cousin and her Uncle Ralph, her dad’s brother, would be coming to stay. Ralph, an artist will stay and work in the boathouse, while Maggie has to share her bedroom with Nula.  You can imagine the distance between the two girls:

Before getting into bed Nula brushed her hair for five minutes, eyes steady in the mirror. Maggie pulled her blue dolphin duvet up to her chest, pretended to read her novel and said nothing. Then Nula slipped her slim body, clothed in cerise pyjamas that reached right down to her ankles, into the camp bed on the other side of Maggie’s room. Maggie reached over to turn off the lamp and the two girls lay in the darkness for a long time. An hour, maybe more, passed.

Everything changed after that summer, months that would test all the relationships between parents, siblings, and relatives. Ralphs paints, Joe and Nula go off on his motorbike, her parents are nearly at breaking point, and Maggie … well, Roberts cleverly builds up all these events until they reach a critical mass and snap! No-one in that family will remain unaffected.

Back in the present, you have to question Maggie’s sanity in returning to the island with Samuel. Surely it’s one of the first places that the police will look for her mother and brother still live there. As a nanny, hiding in plain sight masquerading as a mother is something that Maggie is quite used to doing – she’s the one who witnessed Samuel’s first steps and words after all. She has plans, knows where to go, but it’s not that straight-forward.

As we go back and forth between past and present, the tension mounts. I found the way that Roberts manages to keep changing our allegiance was fascinating. Although we have immense sympathy for Nula, the more we get to know her, the more irritating she becomes, especially once we’ve met her cocksure younger self.  Maggie on the other hand, commits this awful betrayal of trust at the start of the novel, but once we learn about her childhood and teenage years, she does begin to soften in our views. In understanding her we find ourselves being less sorry for Nula.  Our emotions will get tugged one way and then another many times throughout the story.

The novel also contains some interesting observations about the concept of home. As a teenager Maggie feels an outsider in Wales, like she doesn’t belong. The events of that summer help to drive her away to become an outsider somewhere else – in this case Oxford. When she abducts Samuel, it’s Anglesey that inexorably draws her home.

The male characters in this novel are there to add support to the two female leads. Bar Joe, each effectively gets an extended cameo in one time-frame of Maggie’s life – her father in her childhood, Uncle Ralph as a teenager, and Greg in the present. Only Joe is a constant in Maggie’s life, and even that relationship will be strained to the utmost.

How will it end?  It could be a tragedy, or there may be a glimmer of hope. I can’t let on of course, but I can tell you that Mother Island and My Policeman, Roberts’s previous book, represent a young novelist really hitting her stride. I enjoyed this book very much, and discussed it further with Bethan here.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Bethan Roberts, Mother Island (pub Chatto & Windus, London 2014), hardback, 312 pages.

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