Of all human relationships, there is none more mysterious, intense and scrutinized than the one between mother and child. We all know that motherhood brings profound joy and extreme exhaustion. What is discussed far less is the extreme fear that can creep in alongside those other, more palatable emotions. And this base terror – much more ancient than our ability to write about it – has always acted like catnip to the suspense novelist. After all, what could be worse than losing your child? What if mortal danger to your baby lurks around every corner, or even from within the sanctuary of your home? Yet more disturbing, what if you’re not fearful for your child but of them? What if knowing you would die for them doesn’t equate to liking the person they become?
These scenarios – which, in our generally liberal times, still feel taboo and transgressive – shake the reader, particularly the female reader, to her core. I couldn’t resist the pull of this dark dynamic and my own novel, The Heatwave, features a mother whose difficult, differently-wired and possibly dangerous daughter unravels everything she’d ever assumed about motherhood.
Here are five other novels about maternal fear which challenge as much as they chill.
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Published in 1988 and undoubtedly a classic of the genre of ambivalent mothers, Lessing’s fifth child – Ben – is described from the start in monstrous fashion, with his oddly-shaped head and yellowish skin. A changeling in a family which had been effortlessly harmonious before his arrival, he fights his way out of utero and bites his mother’s nipples until they’re black. As he grows older and stronger, animals are duly tortured and ultimately the decision is made to institutionalize him. Deeply unsettling right through to the twist at the end.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The author once wrote that she scared herself ‘witless’ writing this novel at a time when, in her early forties, she might still have borne a child. She didn’t in the end – and perhaps the specter of Kevin was to blame. This utterly absorbing book, written from the perspective of a high school killer’s mother, was a huge bestseller – but not because of its blood-soaked climax. What really got people talking was the way narrator Eva railed against various assumptions about women and motherhood – not least that the mother of a bad child should take the blame.
The Push by Ashley Audrain
Publishing next year, Audrain’s debut is a powerful and relentlessly bleak read detailing the disintegration of narrator Blythe’s life after she gives birth to Violet. Like my own book, and Shriver’s above, Blythe (who is anything but blithe) finds herself alone in her suspicions that Violet is dangerous, with husband Fox convinced that the problem instead lies with Blythe herself. Flashbacks to the damaged childhoods of Blythe’s mother and grandmother introduce that high Victorian motif of gothic fiction: bad blood passed down through the generations.
Lullaby/The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
Rather than exploring what it is to be a mother who struggles to love their child, Slimani’s mesmerizing Lullaby falls into a different category of maternal nightmare: that of bringing harm upon your child by inviting a stranger into your home. Myriam and Paul are a successful Parisian couple who engage the eerily self-contained Louise as a nanny for their two small children. A masterful depiction of a damaged psyche and a socially unequal Paris, it’s as addictive as it is frightening, offering up a worst case scenario for any anxious parent who is just trying to keep their children safe. Certain disturbing details (roast chicken and a glass of Fanta, anyone?) will stay with you for a long time.
Little Face by Sophie Hannah
New mother Alice returns home from a dutiful postpartum session at the health club to find the front door open, her husband fast asleep and baby Florence missing. Except that there’s a big twist: there is a baby in the crib – it’s just that Alice is certain it’s not hers. With a controlling live-in mother-in-law and a husband whose first wife was murdered, both of whom try to convince Alice she’s lost her mind, the relentlessly creepy and claustrophobic Little Face is not only a great example of modern gothic literature, but slyly political, too – demonstrating that the misogynistic trope of ‘hysterical woman’ is still alive and well.
Kate Riordan is a British writer and journalist. After working on staff at the Guardian and Time Out London, she left London for the Cotswolds in order to concentrate on writing novels. Her historical novel Fiercombe Manor (The Girl in the Photograph in the UK) was published by Harper in 2015.
THE HEATWAVE (Grand Central Publishing; on-sale August 18) Under the scorching French sun, a tense homecoming unearths a long-buried family secret. When Sylvie Durand receives a letter calling her back to her crumbling family home in the South of France, she knows she has to go. In the middle of a sweltering 1990’s summer marked by unusual fires across the countryside, she returns to La Reverie with her youngest daughter Emma in tow, ignoring the deep sense of dread she feels for this place she’s long tried to forget.