Other People’s Mothers
Two sisters bravely battle neglect in an unsettling, tenderly observed debut
In Other People’s Mothers, Mirthe van Doornik tells the story of two sisters, Kine and Nico, left to fend for themselves by their mother and their absent father. Van Doornik’s gripping debut spans the period from 1997 to 2014, with a narrative perspective that alternates between the two girls.
At the outset, Kine is 11 and Nico 14. They travel to school on the metro every morning, without a ticket. ‘It’s not worth the money,’ their mother Nora insists. If they get caught, they have to talk their own way out of trouble. Acting, they call it, not lying.
Nora — or Eleonora as she likes to be called in the conviction that she has Romany blood — is completely unpredictable, a lost soul. In Kine’s eyes she starts the day small and warm, but is hard and cold by the time they come home in the evening. The girls have divided their mother into three: the mother who treats them to a slap-up Chinese meal when she gets lucky on the scratch cards, the mother who sees conspiracies around every corner, and the dangerous mother you had better steer clear of when she’s drunk or stoned, who pleads with you and twists your emotions.
They can tell from the music playing when they get home what kind of mood Nora is in. ‘Damage assessment’s the first thing that needs doing when we walk through that door.’
The girls learn to live with a mother who feels no sense of responsibility whatsoever. She splashes out on taxis but refuses to pay for a school trip or a calculator. When Nico makes a pretty show-box for an art contest and wins a weekend at Disneyland Paris, Nora has a seedy acquaintance drive them all there. As soon as they arrive, she shows her daughters where they can have breakfast and she and the driver disappear for a Parisian fling, without a backward glance.
The girls refuse to let life get them down and survive by straining to put everything in perspective. It’s a strategy that takes its toll. At times they want nothing more than to be invisible and stay silent all day. Nico sees danger at every turn and, especially after 9/11, develops an unhealthy fascination for disasters and accidents. She is first to leave home but it’s more of a struggle for her to build an independent life than it is for Kine, who finds a relationship and a way to care about her mother in spite of it all. Kine still has hope, Nico has lost hers. ‘Nothing is going to change. No one thinks about us.’ Ultimately it is Kine who prevents another mother entering their lives: a dead mother ‘more present and more angry than all the other mothers put together.’