All three of the central characters in Brit Bennett’s debut novel are connected to Upper Room, a black church in San Diego, and all three have complex relationships with their mothers. When we first meet her, Nadia is reeling from her mother’s recent suicide. Luke’s mother is the overbearing wife of the pastor, and Aubrey’s mother has chosen the stepfather who abused Aubrey over her daughter. They are also all three deeply affected by their individual trauma.
Nadia, struggling to cope, is skipping school and partying, and then starts hooking up with Luke, who is grappling with what he is to do with his life after a football injury which has put paid to both his sports career and his college scholarship. The rest of the novel shows us the way that this brief relationship and the decisions they make echo down the years, as Nadia moves away to college, Luke and Aubrey get together and secrets are kept. Namely, Nadia finds herself pregnant, takes the decision to get rid of it and Luke gets the money to do so together. Nadia never tells Aubrey, her deeply religious best friend about this,
My Instagram feed was full of this book back in January and I couldn’t get the cover out of my mind. I had heard it was about the experience of black womanhood, which sounded interesting.
It’s about the oppressiveness that can come with being a part of a small, close-knit community. The novel is to an extent narrated by the Church Mothers, a group of older women who have devoted their lives to the church, and who know everybody’s business. Every now and then they break into the narrative, frequently passing judgement over the characters. Shame and guilt are strong themes running throughout, particularly for the female characters, who are definitely judged more harshly than the men. There’s an underlying idea of the standards to which black women are held, and of what those women should and should not choose to do with their bodies.
One of the primary expectations placed on women is their role as mothers. Nadia rejects that role, and is judged harshly by Luke and later other members of their community, and suffers guilt about her abortion in the years that follow. Meanwhile Aubrey is struggling to conceive and feels inadequate as a result. There is also Nadia’s own mother, who is judged by the Mothers and others within the community for failing in her duty as a mother by killing herself, with very little consideration given for what her mental situation must have been to bring her to that stage.
The mothers open the novel by assuring us that they now know everything that has gone on with Nadia Turner and the pastor’s son, but by the end we realise that the picture of events that they have pieced together is garbled and hyperbolic. Ultimately, even in such a small community, it is shown to be impossible to know the whole story.