It might seem like a strange thing to be celebrating so-called ‘bad’ or unconventional mothers around Mother’s Day. (One of our favourites is pictured above, Mrs Wormwood in Matilda.) But we’re really celebrating the talent and creativity of the authors who have created complex characters in such rich detail and dimension that they stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. These five novels embrace the many different shades of motherhood and the plots are richer for it.
Shortlisted for the 1996 Women’s Prize for Fiction
On the surface, it’s clear that Delia Grinstead, the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, is not going to win any ‘Mother of the Year’ awards. But Tyler’s gift is to make you care, and to look deeper at the motivations and environment that lead to Delia walking away from her family one day, with no notice or note.
There are complex questions of identity bound up here, and whether you sympathise with Delia or want to shout at her, there’s no doubt this novel will leave a lasting impression.
Longlisted for the 2006 Women’s Prize for Fiction
In The Position we see how the career choice of parents can have a lasting impact on their children. In 1975, Paul and Roz Mellow write a bestselling Joy of Sex-type book that mortifies their four school-aged children and ultimately changes the shape of the family forever.
Now, with the hit show Sex Education documenting the relationship between a sex therapist and her teenage son, this funny and intelligent book is the perfect next read if you’ve loved the show.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction
Bernadette is a troubled soul, never quite fitting in to her life in Seattle with daughter Bee and her high-flying husband. She never diverts from her safe routine, dropping Bee off to school, avoiding school activities or volunteering. So when Bee asks for a trip to Antarctica in return for getting good grades at school, rather than face her daughter’s disappointment she agrees. But when the times comes to go, she simply vanishes.
Bee, however, is not about to let her best friend vanish and undertakes the task of finding her. This novel is full of warmth and ingenuity as Bee peels back the layers of Bernadette’s history.
Shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction
Leonie thinks she has the best intentions in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. She wants to be a better mother to her children, but according to her own Mama ‘she ain’t got the mothering instinct.‘ After the death of her brother, Leonie can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use, as her brother’s ghost visits her only when she’s high.
Leonie is a terrible mother, but she is portrayed as nothing more or less than a messed-up human being. This is an intimate portrait of a family struggling to find hope and connections, discovering the power – and limitations – of the bonds of family.
Winner of the 2005 Women’s Prize for Fiction
This list would not be complete without one of the most complicated relationships in fiction, that of Eva and Kevin in Lionel Shriver’s award-winning book.
Raising questions on nature vs nurture and motherhood at its most elemental, this book delves deep into moral quandries and won’t be an easy read for everyone. It’s hard not to empathize with Eva, even at her worst moments, especially as the book is told from her point of view. There’s no doubt this is a rollercoaster novel you won’t be able to put down – remember to brace yourself for its impact.
Do you have a favourite mother in fiction? Does Mrs Bennett make you want to pull your hair out or does Molly Weasley give you all the feels? There’s no denying mothers in fiction are portrayed in a rainbow of colours and shades. We hope you’ve enjoyed this list – we have more Mother’s Day recommendations over in the features section.