Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
Jayne Anne Phillips is a fiction writer who has covered a lot of artistic ground in her career. A writer of experimental short stories and of traditionally narrated novels, she has often focused on the experiences of women—young women, older women—as they move through the worlds of family and work and men. She is also a writer frequently linked to the landscape of her native West Virginia, setting most of her fiction in that region. In her novel Motherkind Phillips tells a story at once familiar and unfamiliar to her readers.
This work centers on Katherine (“Kate”) Tateman, a 31-year-old editor and writer living outside of Boston. She is pregnant and living with the father of this child, who has brought his own two sons into the relationship following a divorce. One strand of Phillips’s story follows this pregnancy through to the birth of the child—a son, Alexander—and to the eventual marriage of Kate and her lover, Matt. Phillips does a wonderful job of probing the inner-world of her protagonist, exposing the tensions that beset Kate as she anticipates and considers motherhood.
Those tensions are heightened by the story contained in the other primary strand of the novel, that of Kate’s dying mother, who is also named Katherine. In fact, Phillips structures her novel so that while readers read of the “present” situation (the pregnancy, the birth, the marriage), readers alternately read the recollected story of Kate’s trip to her hometown and to her mother, to tell her mother the news of her pregnancy. Kate’s connections to this home-landscape (a geography that has the feel of West Virginia, but which is never clearly identified as such) is contrasted nicely not only to her new home-landscape of Boston, but also to the exotic landscapes through which she has recently traveled: India, Nepal. Clearly, one of Phillips’s concerns here is with the negotiations carried on with the past, and with the places associated with the past.
Kate’s mother, as she begins her gradual physical decline, comes to live with her daughter and her family—she becomes a significant part of that family, in fact. And Phillips takes readers into another realm of her concern: that of the mother- daughter relation. Kate feels the powers of both life and death tugging at her, draining her energies, consuming her time. Indeed, time itself is a major player in Kate’s world (and in the novel) as it runs inexorably toward death; time occupies a central place in this household; all who live there are aware of its presence. All, too, achieve some kind of peace with that presence. Kate comes to practice a poetry of motherhood, moving into a new conception of self. She does not replace her mother, or become her mother. She becomes a woman shaped by her mother, but a woman of her own making and in her own place.
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