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Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
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bookshelves: 2019-release, read-on-kindle, past-and-present, netgalley, mystery-thriller-etc

‘Stone mother’ was a Victorian term for an asylum. Such a building sits at the heart of this novel, looming large over the small Suffolk town of Nusstead and defining many of the characters’ lives. Having escaped her impoverished background, Marianne has tried to leave behind memories of her ex-boyfriend Jesse and the terrible crime they covered up together. With her mother declining due to dementia, however, Marianne is forced to return. Her wealthy husband Sam thinks he’s doing her a favour by buying a surprise pied-à-terre in Nusstead, but Marianne is horrified: the flat is in the former Nazareth Mental Hospital, now rebranded as ‘Park Royal Manor’. On top of that, Jesse is still around, and still exerting a magnetic pull on Marianne. What did the two of them do 30 years ago? And what links them to a successful (though widely loathed) politician, Helen Greenlaw?

Stone Mothers unfolds its secrets very slowly. Rather than alternating chapters, it’s split into four lengthy chunks, so we have to read almost 100 pages of Marianne’s present-day situation (loaded with portentous references to Something Bad™ that happened in 1988) before there’s a flashback. This doesn’t feel like the best structure for a story that relies so heavily on events from a character’s past: by the end of Part One, I was getting so frustrated that I was close to giving up. Part Three, set in 1958, is the most compelling, mainly because it gives some context to the only character in the book I actually found interesting. The ending is as clever and satisfying a conclusion as I’ve come to expect from Erin Kelly, though it can’t fully make up for the general slowness and lack of originality.

I don’t know what went wrong here, because I’ve consistently enjoyed Kelly’s novels. In comparison to most of her previous work, Stone Mothers is a bit... ordinary. There are some interesting themes, around the stigmas attached to mental illness and poverty, but these are hardly new ground for the genre. I feel like every other UK/US thriller in the past few years has involved someone who grew up poor returning to their small, insular hometown after achieving success/wealth (and, inevitably, having to face an awful secret from their past). I do enjoy this trope; I just expected something more from such an accomplished writer.

If you haven’t read Erin Kelly yet, I recommend skipping this and trying one of her earlier books. The Poison Tree captures time and place so beautifully I can still easily call its setting to mind eight years after reading it. The Burning Air has one of the best twists I’ve ever read, a paradigm shift that changed everything I thought I knew about the story, a masterclass in how it should be done. He Said/She Said is irresistibly pacy and fantastically exciting, and the intriguing context of eclipse chasing makes it feel like something completely new.

I received an advance review copy of Stone Mothers from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Reading Progress

September 10, 2018 – Shelved
March 11, 2019 – Started Reading
March 11, 2019 –
page 74
21.02%
March 12, 2019 –
page 201
57.1%
March 12, 2019 – Finished Reading

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