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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mother Land

Paul Theroux

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To purchase Mother Land

Title: Mother Land
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 509 pages
Availability: Mother Land - US
Mother Land - UK
Mother Land - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : darkly amusing family and personal portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 5/5/2017 Michael Upchurch
Financial Times . 24/11/2017 Sam Leith
The Guardian . 25/10/2017 Ian Sansom
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/5/2017 Stephen King
The Observer . 19/11/2017 Alex Clark
The Spectator . 2/12/2017 Suzi Feay
Sunday Times . 5/11/2017 Alexander Nurnberg
The Times . 11/11/2017 James Marriott
TLS . 12/12/2017 Philip Womack

  From the Reviews:
  • "This family, whether fictional or not, works on its own terms. (...) Yet Mother Land isnít just a hatchet job. Itís too antic and unpredictable in its sympathies to be that. (...) Therouxís prose is suitably silky in its insinuations and vicious in its ability to claw. The sheer slipperiness of Jayís observations on the Justus family leaves you uncertain how to evaluate any of them, including Jay himself. Itís no accident that, the more he harps on Mother, the more elusive she becomes." - Michael Upchurch, Boston Globe

  • "In other hands this would be a deft investigation into the relation of art and life. But rather than capering in a metafictional hall of mirrors with the brio of a Calvino or a Borges, Theroux lumbers about like a lost tourist. (...) Essentially, itís a 500-page whingeathon" - Sam Leith, Financial Times

  • "Therouxís great hurts and rages may be difficult to behold but they are nothing if not readable. Critical often to the point of self-harm, his work has never flinched from attempting to tell the truth, as he sees it, about places and people. (...) (W)hat I do know is that the novel brilliantly depicts characters in pinpoint prickly prose and continually warns the reader very precisely not to seek equivalences between the family depicted and Therouxís own, since of course all families are essentially unknowable." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "I sort of liked it. As with some of the more gruesome Thomas Hardy novels (Jude the Obscure comes to mind), reading Mother Land is like watching a slow-motion car crash. (...) Thereís no story here, really, just a situation (.....) Mother Land is an exercise in mean-spirited score-settling. Itís also fun." - Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One can read Mother Land, then, in a state of appalled fascination, the transgression of full-on family hatred licensed, but also safely displaced on to another family. (...) But itís also a phenomenally strange novel, maybe one of the most repetitive Iíve ever read, with words (indirection, teasing, frugal), accusations and anecdotes recurring to the point of fatigue. Is this an echo of the nature of family life, of our ability to nurse grudges and fuel hobbyhorses, or just writerly indiscipline ?" - Alex Clark, The Observer

  • "Novels about novelists are one thing, but your lead characterís occasional grumbles about literary critics, and particularly his rage about the eight-page unfavourable book review he once got, just isnít a good look. (...) Could you make the arc, if we can call it that, a little less predictable ? Still, thereís so much to love, Paul; so many psychological insights and wonderful turns of phrase. Still got the magic! Iím wondering about the potential readership though." - Suzi Feay, The Spectator

  • "Paul Theroux seems to have written this lengthy screed as revenge on his family. This kind of cathartic process, however, might have been better confined to a journal, or even a psychiatristís couch. These are not so much furies as gremlins." - Philip Womack, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mother Land is autobiographical fiction so thinly veiled that you wonder why Theroux even bothers changing the names. It is a family-reckoning without the slightest pretense of protecting the innocent -- because there are no innocents here: "Our family secrets were much too horrible to reveal", the narrator writes -- but reveal he does, wallowing uncomfortably (there's a lot of shame here) but brutally honestly.
       The narrator's family name is 'Justus' (transformed from the original 'Justice' "when they percolated south to the United States") and this is a family novel -- almost entirely just us. An aging, slightly worn Jay returns to near the fold, to 'Mother Land' -- his seven siblings (six living, and the one who died stillborn, still very much a presence for their mother -- there's even a seat for her at the table when they celebrate the mother's birthdays) all also nearby. Their father dies, bringing them somewhat together, but it's the octogenarian -- and then nonagenarian, then centenarian -- mother who remains the focal point -- and, more significantly, puppet master -- of this awful, inescapable family.
       Sometimes successful travel-writer and novelist Jay, in his fifties and sixties, does occasionally escape on travels -- journeys familiar from Theroux's late-period books (he really sticks very closely to the on-the-record record in this supposed fiction) -- but he can never entirely escape. Still:

It was always a joy to flee Mother Land. The relief of it made even the worst places bearable. In the average hellhole I smiled, reflecting: It could be worse, I could be home !
       Home is around Massachusetts' Cape Cod, where the mother-figure tyrannizes the kids -- as she has all her life -- brilliantly playing them against each other, keeping -- and, especially, sharing -- secrets, undermining each as best she can -- and her best is impressively good. Or horrible.
       Often, the kids are at various stages of war with another, played off against each other by their mother; at some points it gets so bad they all avoid each other like the plague: Jay describes turning around at the local dump when he sees one of his siblings there -- unwilling to admit to what he is throwing away in their presence (more secrets, even of the most banal sort). So even:
     None of us went to church, for fear of meeting one another.
       Mother isn't wrong when she singles out the one long-deceased child, the one that escaped all the family insanity:
     Angela was now fifty-five, and though she had been dead for nearly that whole time, she was seen as triumphant by Mother, who said, "She's had the best life of any of us."
       Too true; too horribly true.
       Though he grows up among them, and continues, mostly, to live among them, even Jay is astonished by the continuing, mother-fostered family dynamics:
I realize I am deluding myself, because despite knowing how disloyal we were, I was continually surprised by the greater and greater betrayals. Even the deepest cynicism does not prepare you for the worst that a family can do to you.
       Even the brother he is closest to, Floyd, manages to kneecap him -- exactly as older brother Alexander did Paul Theroux -- with a review published in Boston magazine, tearing apart Jay's novel, The Half Life (a barely disguised version of Paul Theroux's novel, My Other Life; Alexander's review -- quoted verbatim at length here -- appeared in the October 1996 issue of the magazine). They avoided each other for years -- though eventually they do make- and team up again, more or less, against the rest of the horde.
       In considering writing about family -- something, Jay notes, he has always avoided, with most of his protagonists family-less, even orphans -- he sees an account with that focus as a: "reflection on power, a study of malice". It's almost entirely maternal here -- a mother who is a genius at manipulation, cruelly undermining each of her children (not to mention more distant relatives) behind their backs, and brilliant at using the money she has saved (a store of wealth surprising to Jay -- who sees practically none of it -- and some of the others) to buy and curry favor among the favorites she plays off against each other.
       Writing was always an escape for Jay, while his mother saw no value in it (and made him get work at the local supermarket chain instead of letting him focus on school), and so in this atmosphere where: "Reading was an indulgence, writing was unthinkable; no wonder they became my passion."
       Travel also allowed for escape, and remains an outlet:
     Long ago, I had discovered that in travel I became another person, someone I knew well and liked best -- the person I really was.
       Part of Jay's frustration is that he recognizes he is part of this family -- not different from them but actually one of them, and someone who engages in similar behavior in many instances. They're awful people -- and he shares their awfulness. Occasionally others figure in his life -- the two sons, living in England; the occasional woman in his life (but it never goes entirely right with them) -- and these touches of near-normality make the terribleness of the family he is mired in even more disturbing. He flails, but can't free himself, of course: they are him, he is them.
       Typical for the way the family (doesn't) communicate is the exchange between Jay and one of his brothers, Gilbert passing on information that has already gone through various family-stations, everyone knowing too much of what the others are up too (and yet knowing nothing at all):
"Listen, I just got off the phone with Franny. She was talking to Ma this morning. Ma was really upset about what you said."
     "What did I say ?"
     "Let's not get into that, okay ?"
       For the mother: "Money was love", and during many of these years she doles it out accordingly. Jay and Floyd break into her house and photocopy her check register, and see it as: "the heptagram of her love". Of course, currying favor comes at a high cost to the kids too, and they are a largely miserable lot. Mom continues chugging along in good health -- better, eventually, than many of her aging offspring, struck down by various maladies and old age.
       There's a great deal of personal reflection too, Theroux's alter ego a familiar figure from many of his previous novels (he's gone the autobiographical route before) and, of course, the always personally revealing travel books. Jay's own family -- two failed marriages, two concerned but only intermittently present sons -- is augmented by a blast for the past, a college-age experience that was his worst (and best) year, when he got his girlfriend pregnant and they fled to Puerto Rico, before returning to Massachusetts to give the child away. (Mother, of course, held all this very much against Jay.) His old girlfriend makes contact with the abandoned child all these many years later, and Jay gets to know his other son too -- brought up in a normal family, happy, successful -- and also uses him to shake up Mother and his own siblings. Present-day efforts at deeper relationships don't go quite as well, Mother's interference helping to undermine them where she can.
       Jay acknowledges:
     Repetition -- of stories, of remarks, of rejoinders -- was a cultural habit in Mother Land, perhaps apparent in this narrative.
       Indeed, much of Mother Land seems like more of the same -- but Theroux manages to keep the story roll(ick)ing, and there's enough self-awareness for Jay to remain a sympathetic guide, rather than just another in this terrible brood. Indeed, the humanness he sees even in the often hated siblings make for a believable -- if heavily blemished -- family portrait.
       As the mother ages -- past a hundred -- she does slow down and can't stir things up quite like she used to, and the last of the four parts of the novel has a somewhat gentler feel as it follows her slow decline. Touching too are Jay's efforts to find someone to be with -- and the novel is beautifully closed off with a hint of his success, hidden not in the text proper but in the seemingly innocuous mention of the date and, specifically, the place of the completion of the work (hint: it's not Mother Land). (Here is one of the places the novel does diverge far from autobiography, as Theroux has long divided his time between Mother Land-terrain and Hawaii, and his second marriage did not fail in the way Jay's did.)
       The style, the attitude, are familiar from previous Theroux novels (and the travel writing, too). At times it can seem almost to be shtick, but he's so very good at it. Despite how horribly the family members are to each other, Mother Land isn't even particularly bitter; the humor can be grim --and the mother does have a lot to answer for -- but Jay has seen enough of the world to accept people for how they are and understand that they aren't going to change. And often enough, he'll play along and play his part as well -- as good at these family games as any of his siblings. He's also always honest about it, admitting to his own pettiness and failings.
       Mother Land is an odd sort of family novel, but is done well enough -- often very well -- to be quite compelling. In particular, Theroux handles the sentimental very well, not drowning his book in it -- as so many family-stories do -- but not ignoring it entirely either. A strange success, but a success nevertheless.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 May 2017

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Mother Land: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2017-2024 the complete review

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