The Mothers and Surfacing Bias
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers starts with a 17-year-old girl whose mother has just died by suicide and spirals from there, following not just her, but the other lives that hers touches. I want to talk about its fascinating style of narration.
First, it’s my opinion that every narrator has an agenda. Without one there’d be no reason to tell the story. And every narrator has a personality that shapes that story. This is obvious with a first-person narrator. When the POV is third-limited, the personality is often that of the character the narrator aligns with. Other times, especially with an omniscient or objective or mind-hopping narrator, the person speaking is distinct from the characters. Although this final sort of narrator sometimes pretends to be neutral, it must have some bias, which can be determined, if nowhere else, in the choices it makes in telling the story.
The Mothers uses a combination of these tools. It’s narrated by a group of women that pray together at a church—technically a “we” or first-person plural. But it also uses the conventions of a dueling third-limited perspective, dipping into the brains and personalities of several different characters, even giving the reader information that the storytellers don’t seem able to know.
So it’s first-person plural, but it’s also third-person. Some would call it omniscient because it knows the thoughts of different characters. But when in third-person, it only goes into one person’s head at a time, so I prefer to call that part third-person dueling. While my description may sound confusing, I’m never lost within the book. Bennett is always clear in her transitions so I know exactly whose thoughts I am getting.
What I most love about this strategy is the way it surfaces the perspective and biases of the storytellers. Another writer might use an omniscient voice that pretends to be objective or a dueling third-limited that only showcases the personalities of the characters. But this unusual choice, and the special insight it provides, is a gift.
There’s no pretense of objectivity. These women have opinions about the story, about what should happen, and about what happens even though it shouldn’t. They have relationships with the characters. They can tell you who is trouble well before the trouble happens. And they can show love and care for characters even as those characters make bad choices.
They can also question what they tell. Instead of just one view of events, we can get a multiplicity:
Elise had hesitated before going out to her car, a pause that varies in length throughout our memories; Betty says it was a long moment, Flora, a brief hitch. Should we have known Elise would drive off and shoot herself? Was there any way of knowing? No, nobody could’ve predicted it, not if Robert hadn’t even known.
This style of telling feels like a conversation and thus allows for questions and a variety of answers. It gives us observations without certainty, which is a really clever way to illuminate a mystery, creating one that is examined instead of obscured. The question of why Elise killed herself can be unknowable even as we know all the evidence.
This chorus of voices and their questioning of events disappear, mostly, when we’re in the third-person POV aligned with another character. The voice becomes more certain in these times and feels more authoritative. And so we trust the voice and believe it as true—only for it to slide out again, at which point we realize there is no certain truth. Questioning the nature of truth is a theme of the book, especially the mystery of who another person is and why they do what they do.
This is true even when we’re in a third-person limited perspective. In this case, it’s Nadia:
Maybe she’d never really known her mother at all. And if you couldn’t know the person whose body was your first home, then who could you ever know?
We’re also made to understand that knowing a thing isn’t the same as it being true:
Nadia knew before answering the phone that her father was dead.
It’s said with certainty. And yet he turns out not to be. It’s proof that knowing isn’t always reliable.
Truth and perspective have a lot to do with each other. But that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with facts. An honest perspective is true and also might not be. Honesty, I believe, is truth with an acknowledgement of bias. I love that this book creates a set of narrators who tell the truth as they see it, but also allows the reader to understand the limitations to their knowledge. We can trust and not trust at the same time.
In this way, bias becomes a strategy for honesty. The bias is made obvious so we can evaluate it. It also invites us to make our own judgments.
When the protagonist has an abortion, this set of storytellers does not approve. This is when understanding them as particular and biased people becomes most important. It’s a way to allow a multiplicity of opinions into the book, while still letting the reader have their own.
If we got the same level of judgment from a narrator who pretended to be neutral, it would seem as if the book itself were condemning the action. But to leave out the disapprobation the character faces wouldn’t be true either. And of course, we also get the perspective of the protagonist. With her, we can believe her choice is the right one. Acknowledging the social consequences of an act and recognizing that those consequences come (perhaps unfairly) from opinionated human beings helps thread that needle, all while creating space for the reader to think and feel and reach their own conclusions.