Ryan Tan Reviews “Just Like Mother” by Anne Heltzel

Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel is available in The Chamber's bookshop.

In Anne Heltzel’s “Just Like Mother”, Maeve finds her cousin, Andrea, after two decades of being apart. Both Maeve and Andrea were orphans of the Mother Collective, an all-female cult that exclusively equated womanhood with giving birth. After the cult’s suppression, Maeve was adopted while Andrea fended for herself. This led to their separation and subsequent reunion. When Maeve loses her job as a fiction editor, she has no choice but to live with Andrea, who demands one of Maeve’s ovum as payment. Although she refuses, Andrea does not give up until she gets what she wants.

In the climax, Maeve steals the car keys of Andrea’s husband, Rob, and escapes in his car. Just before this chapter, Maeve describes a flashback in which she steals the car of the Mother Collective staff, driving against traffic and colliding with a truck. The juxtaposition of this flashback with Maeve driving in the present primes me for a similar ending, and indeed, Maeve finds herself in a hospital room in the next chapter. Considering the number of twists in the novel, the predictability of this development is a bit surprising. Even so, I find it effective because the chapter in which Maeve crashes is unusually brief, accelerating the story’s pace in a fresh and distinctive way. I also love the parallel between the shortness of the chapter and the abruptness of Maeve’s collision. This symmetry between plot and form increases my engagement with the writing.

When Maeve’s boyfriend, Tyler, expresses a desire to blindfold her while they have sex, she agrees, describing her response as “Pavlovian”. She downplays her abstract, “intellectual” desire for gentle sex while validating her “primal” need for punishment. There is cruel irony in the way she recognises the pull of the blindfold but cannot resist it. The inevitability of her fate is referenced in an earlier scene, in which she places a doll on a chair in her bedroom so it can “preside over her sleep”. This image evokes Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, whose button-eyed doll watches her day and night. Just as Coraline cannot escape the Other Mother’s apartment, Maeve repeatedly finds herself back at Andrea’s house, no matter how many times she leaves. Both Maeve and Coraline are trapped by a “Mother” who is anything but.

Many of the characters die offscreen, which is unsettling because we don’t know how they die. Even when Maeve learns about the deaths of her boyfriends, their corpses remain invisible, insulating her from a shock that might have alerted her to Andrea’s schemes. The subtlety of these deaths accentuates the violence that Maeve does see. “Just Like Mother” combines unexpected twists with graphic scenes of brutality, inducing dread as well as a more explicit terror.

Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Bone Parade, Bristol Noir, and The 13 Days of Christmas.

Just Like Mother is available in The Chamber’s bookshop.

If you like this review, you might like to read more of Ryan’s reviews in The Chamber’s Reviews Department.

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