Muddy Reads: Mother Tongue, by Julie Mayhew
There have been some brilliant young adult novels published in the last few years, and Mother Tongue, the latest book from Berkhamsted-based author Julie Mayhew, came out this week to some serious critical attention and acclaim.
Mother Tongue heads straight into difficult territory — and stays there. The story comes out of a school massacre — inspired by the Beslan school siege in 2004, where more than 1,000 people, mostly children, were held hostage for 3 days and nearly 400 were killed. It’s painful stuff — but it’s stunningly written in the first person. You’re right there inside the head of the older sister of one of the hostages.
What I found most engaging was the novel’s focus on the families and individuals who weren’t caught up the siege themselves, but who were helpless observers and then were left to carry on living in its aftermath. ‘Survivor guilt’ is way too glib a way to describe it, but Mayhew’s exploration of what it means to go on living — whether to stay with the pain or try to escape it — is deeply fascinating.
18-year-old Darya Ivanova, the main character, is complicated and difficult — and that’s definitely her appeal. I loved the depiction of her decision to take up smoking, almost as a protest, almost as a statement of intent, and the way in which that quickly became integral to the persona she was struggling to create for herself.
Honestly, there are lines in there that read like poetry — and the careful sprinkling of Russian words and idiom gives it a flavour all its own. And the repetition of key phrases, that seem to change their meaning every time you read them — “what must you do for a New York journalist?” — gives it a haunted quality, the way ideas and words come back to mind over and over whether you want them to or not.
This is Julie Mayhew’s third young adult novel — although the ‘young adult’ tag really shouldn’t put you off reading them yourself as well as encouraging any stray teens to do so too. Red Ink, her first, dealt with grief and dislocation; and The Big Lie (which is still on my list of books to read, I’m ashamed to say) is an alt-history thriller set in a 2014 Buckinghamshire where the Nazis won the war rather than the allies. They’ve all won awards, garnered nominations left right and centre and attracted the sort of reviews that other writers can only dream of. And for good reason.
Mayhew — when she’s not writing novels — also writes radio drama, organises and performs in the Berko Speakeasy Short Story Cabaret (not been? you should), mentors other writers, and runs and teaches at the Berko Writers Workshop. And that’s not even the lot.
If you’re looking for something to read yourself — or something to get the young adult in your life turning pages (rather than swiping them) — I’d absolutely recommend Mother Tongue. It’s heartbreaking and affirming all at the same time, agonising and engaging, and a cracking good read.