How does it feel? Bethan Roberts discusses 'Mother Island'

The realities of motherhood and the sometimes difficult relationship of employing a nanny, together with fond memories of family holidays on Anglesey were the inspirations behind Bethan Roberts’ new book ‘Mother Island’, which she was at Mostly Books to talk about on Thursday.

Her first novel set in the present day, Mother Island is the story of two women – and one child. New mother, the assured and aloof Nula, thinks the perfect person to take care of her new-born is her cousin, Maggie, an Oxford drop-out, and a bundle of emotion just waiting for someone to love, who has drifted into childcare, and who thinks she knows what is best for Nula’s child.

The pair clash over parenting styles alongside the evolving backstory of how they first met in one summer full of family feuds and raging disappointments. Early on we know Maggie plans to take the child and what follows is a shifting tide of emotion that allows the reader to see both sides of this tug-of-love story as two woman's history bubbles long-buried resentments to the surface.

The distinctive cover gives an idea of the pattern of the story – the switching between the two voices – and a constant shift in where the reader’s sympathies lie between the two women.

Bethan - born and raised in Abingdon - started her published life at independent Serpent's Tail, a small but hugely respected publisher of edgy fiction and book in translation (who also have an enviable reputation for spotting new, young authors). After book 'The Pools' and 'A Good Plain Cook', she moved to Chatto & Windus. She talked a little about the difference in approach from two publishers that she has enjoyed working with.

Describing how she aims to improve with each novel, she particularly values the editing process at Chatto that goes into her novels, describing how the manuscript goes back and forth over several months as changes are made. 

‘I was really surprised when I saw the jacket as it looks like a thriller, although it isn't. I like writing about domestic situations and not in a fluffy way, but I am conscious of having a narrative that pulls people through. The reader deserves a cracking story.’

Bethan’s previous novel ‘My Policeman’ is a well-constructed tug-of-love story of a different kind – the fight between the wife and the lover of a gay man set in 1950s Brighton, which has earned her many plaudits, particularly for her skill in getting under the skin of what it was like to be gay at that time.

The idea of writing about early motherhood, she said, came from her own experiences and in looking to literature when she was pregnant to find out what it might be like to experience motherhood – and finding there were very few novels that had much to say on the subject (she has recently wrote an article on the subject for The Guardian).

‘Mother Island’ is Bethan's fourth novel, and you can read a few reviews here and our own review of it here.

Despite a weather scare (!) we were able to sit out on a lovely Summer evening in the garden. Thanks to Bethan for coming up from Brighton (you never really leave Abingdon of course) and thanks to everyone who came along to listen on what was another delightful event - one that kicked off our 'Vintage Summer' celebration througout August. If you were unable to make it along, we have signed copies of 'Mother Island' now in the shop.

(Brilliant blogger Gaskella has done a rather fabulous write-up of the event here - and she'll be reviewing 'Mother Island' as part of the next edition of Shiny New Books...)

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