Mother Mother by Annie Macmanus

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Review by Annabel

You may know Annie Macmanus as ‘Annie Mac’, the fomer Radio 1 DJ. She left the station last year to pursue other avenues, which have included publishing her debut novel. When a media personality writes a book, it’s always a relief to find a good one, and her novel is assured, straddling that line between commercial and literary fiction. Macmanus is Dublin born, but studied at Queen’s, Belfast and it’s in the NI capital that she sets her novel.

Told in a dual timeline, we begin in the ‘present’, where in the prologue, Mary is visiting a grave in the cemetery. Then staying in the present, seventeen-year-old TJ McConnell wakes up one morning to find his mother has disappeared. Mary is nowhere to be found and he wonders where she’s gone, she’s not answering her phone.

Next we go back to 1990, when Mary was nine. She lived with her older brother Sean, to whom she was very close, and their father who drowns his sorrows in drink. Mary had to be mother at home, for their mammy had died when she was little. Jumping four years, we meet Mary and her best friend Louise; these days Sean is always off with his mates rather than going to and from school with his sister like he used to do. A few chapters and a couple of years further on, we discover how TJ arrived as the result of her first sexual experience, which wasn’t exactly consensual, after a school event.

The day before she went missing, Mary and TJ had had an argument. Not only did Mary not approve of TJ’s friend Alden, who supplies him drugs, but TJ said he wanted to go to New York when he finished school to search for his father as Mary had always told him his dad had gone there. He hopes it wasn’t the argument that has driven her away.

Returning to the earlier timeline, Mary, a promising student, having elected to keep her baby, was forced into a very different life to the one she imagined. She had to look after her father, all the time worrying about Sean, who was descending into violence and drug addiction, and then bring up TJ while working in a garden centre part-time. 

The timeline moves onwards to 2003 and Mary manages to find a better-paid job as part of the grounds team at Bedwood cemetery, a place full of meaning for her as it is where her mother is buried. However, elderly gardener Sid takes her under his wing.

Now Mary would be near her mother all the time. She knew what to say when her father’s face clouded over at the realisation of where she would be every day.
I’ll be able to make sure her plot is nice and near, Daddy.
And she meant it.

Macmanus combines TJ’s coming of age story, in which he finally finds out about his father, with Mary’s ongoing grief and mental torment as she loses more of those around her bound up with her fear of losing TJ too if he goes off in search of his father. At only 35, Mary has needed all her reserves of resilience for all her life, and the reader hopes that although she has run away that she has some left. Will TJ find her in time?

As is common in dual timeline novels, the past is written in the past tense, and the present in the present, and that works well. Although the plot covers nothing new, she executes it well with the right amount of drama, creating two main characters whom the reader immediately has sympathy for. There is also a satisfying ending. Mother Mother is assured and a very enjoyable debut.

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Annabel is Co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Annie MacManus, Mother Mother (Wildfire, 2022). 978-1472275929, 344pp., paperback.

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