REVIEW: ‘The City Mother’

A post-partum mystery novel

January 30, 2022

A famous commercial released by London transport officials in 2008 begins with a vaguely corporate British voice: "This is an awareness test," the speaker announces calmly. The viewer is then asked to watch two teams pass basketballs, and to count how many passes the team in white completes. At the end of the exercise, the voice returns: "The answer is 13. But, did you see the moonwalking bear?" The idea is that most viewers become so absorbed counting passes that they see nothing else. The ad replays the video slowly, revealing the bear, and making a pitch for Londoners to increase their awareness, so as to avoid hitting cyclists on busy urban roads.

Maya Sinha’s debut novel The City Mother toils with similar themes. How aware are we of patterns and moods that hide in plain sight, lurking just below the surface of our busy lives? What are the moonwalking bears dancing across the sets of our own daily dramas, just beyond the threshold of conscientious detection?

For the main character, Cara Nielsen, pain and suffering are ready teachers, heightening her awareness of previously unseen realities. In college, for example, she develops a paralyzing bout of agoraphobia, which enables her to read English literature with a degree of penetration previously inaccessible. She realizes that a fear of certain spaces drives much of Tennyson’s poetry, earning an A for a term paper about the "agoraphobic imagination" informing his work.

Later, as a small-town reporter in her early 20s, Cara undergoes a similar revelation. Assigned to write about the town drunk, she casts her subject, Livingston, as impoverished and destitute, concluding her piece with a conventional, tidy call for improved homelessness services. But she receives a call from Livingston’s sister after the story runs, informing her that Livingston has voluntarily chosen vagrancy despite a significant inheritance.

Livingston’s bewildering preference for vagabondage is the moonwalking bear that escapes Cara’s detection. She determines from that day forward to stick to verifiable facts in her reporting, realizing that the truth, when carefully observed, is stranger than fiction. "This hidden story gave me my first glimpse into a great mystery," Cara says. At the center of the story, "the thing that could not be reported squatted like a toad, cold to the touch and blind, inexplicable and uncanny." The closest she can come to approaching the toad, she realizes, is to contemplate the objective reality surrounding it.

These vivid interludes, however, are just flashbacks within the broader plot. The novel’s present-day setting is a psych ward.

The present-day Cara is a new mother, driven off-kilter by crushing responsibilities, an eroding marriage, and a beautiful apartment that’s falling apart. The anxieties of motherhood have changed her in indelible ways, agitating buried generational traumas and unlocking fresh, unanticipated fears. Now, instead of divining the paranoid motivations driving Victorian poets, or looking for the "toads" to make a newspaper story pop, she notices the dark, menacing energies underlying fire escapes, landings, balconies, and knives. The landing at the top of the stairs is threatening to pull her infant son headfirst down the long stairway. The fire escape is beckoning for her to jump. The world, she observes, is filled with precarious threats. Objects that once seemed ordinary are now ever-present reminders of inevitable doom.

Intriguingly, the concept of the "city" becomes a particular catch-all for Cara’s postpartum anxieties—both in a mythopoetic, literary sense, and in a pragmatic, material one. On the one hand, she sees in the city the type of grotesquerie and folk-carnivalesque that her literary hero, Baudelaire, ascribes to 19th-century Parisian slums. At the same time, if the people on the streets are "raggedy and demented" in a way suited for Romantic poetry, the ethos driving the city’s broader functions is garish and empty, a beacon of cultural postmodernism. "Everything is so clean—so fun and nice and pleasant! iPad! Wi-Fi! Vente Latte! Baby Gap! And on and on," Cara explains. But for all the sleek, name-brand amenities glittering on the surface of urban life, there’s a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the realities of suffering and evil—one that Cara finds destabilizing.

"We live in a society that tries to keep us dazzled with euphoria in a bright cloud of lively and joy-loving slogans," Cara says, quoting Thomas Merton. "Yet nothing is more empty and more dead, nothing is more insultingly insincere and destructive than the vapid grins on the billboards and the moron beatitudes in the magazines which assure us that we are all in bliss right now." Merton’s acerbic diagnosis of the postmodern world captures Cara’s feelings toward the city and its artificial comfort. Instead, Cara longs for medievalism, where leering gargoyles scale towering cathedrals, acknowledging to the peasants below that yes, evil is real. Or as Cara puts it: "To let you know you weren’t going crazy!"

The postmodern world offers no reverence for suffering, Cara concludes. And what of the people who can thrive in such a society? By Cara’s estimation, they are a chic, efficient breed from which she feels increasingly alienated. Technocratic and idealistic, they revere diversity, scorn off-color jokes, and pursue green initiatives. Drinking bone broth, brewing specialized coffee, and riding $1,400 bikes, they’re neither youthful nor old, but able-bodied young professionals, lifehacking their way through prim, intellectual careers.

Against this backdrop, The City Mother weaves together Cara’s investigation of a multilayered set of psychological mysteries. On the broadest, philosophical level, she puzzles over the meaning of life and the purpose of evil. "I felt a pressing need to ascertain the nature of reality, not as an academic matter, but because I had brought a child into it," she explains. On a more psychoanalytical level, she wants to understand the twisted nature of the city and of herself. And, on the most concrete level, amidst the philosophical puzzles, hallucinations, and dirty diapers of her life, she pursues a missing person’s case, a hardboiled whodunit of shady suspects and perplexing clues.

Sinha’s new book is deeply engaging, and Cara’s voice is literary and full of wit. The only shortcoming is that a few of the mysteries unravel without satisfying conclusions. Even more mystifying is the novel’s handling of Cara’s relationship with her mother, Claudia, whose own trauma is key to understanding both her shallow relationship with Cara, and Cara’s pathological response to childrearing. But despite the emphasis on the theme of maternity, the degree of resolution achieved between mother and daughter is insufficient.

But it’s not too late for Sinha to follow up in a sequel, and I desperately hope she will. Specifically, many of the resolutions to Cara’s inquiries are tied up with her conversion to Catholicism, a theme that warrants further investigation. Particularly, Cara finds in the figure of the Blessed Mother the satisfaction of confounding paradoxes: Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, is an icon both of pain and ecstasy, of mundane practicality and numinous rapture. These epiphanies help Cara make sense of her own maternity—of the good and evil, the practical and supernatural, characterizing it.

"Pain is the root of knowledge," Cara says, quoting Simone Weil. She’s right. It’s thanks to the simultaneous joy and pain of motherhood that Cara notices moonwalking bears in her own life, enabling her to solve mysteries in salvific ways.

The City Mother
by Maya Sinha
Chrism Press, 192 pp., Kindle $4.99

Nora Kenney is deputy director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

Published under: Book reviews