book review

Book Review: Hard Mother, Spider Mother, Soft Mother

HARD MOTHER, SPIDER MOTHER, SOFT MOTHER by Hal Y. Zhang is one novella in a science fiction series by Radix Media. It's an optimistically melancholic look at mental illness and the relationship between mother and daughter. Check out what Joshua Ryan Bligh has to say about it.

“Book Review: Hard Mother, Spider Mother, Soft Mother”

Reviewed by Joshua Ryan Bligh

An optimistically melancholic look at mental illness, consumerism, and how the two can come between our relationships.

When the narrator’s mother opens the story with “Did you see the report on the spy from Aberdeen?” you might think you’re about to enter into a tale of espionage. Sure, there is a missing-person and the game may be “a-foot,” but the path forward is one fraught with uncertainty and anxiety rather than victories of deductive reasoning.

The narrator, Ellery Lang, lives with her mother, Valerie Lang, and Valerie’s seemingly outlandish stories. Ever since Ellery was young, Valerie has shared stories and information with her that are not evidently false nor true. Tales of governmental conspiracies, secret messages, and mysterious parentage run wild.

“Enough of her madness has crammed inside me, sloshing around constantly, if not in my base pairs then in the methylation of my DNA, in the light and sounds of her false stories notched in my every fiber.”

Hard Mother is a careful examination of what it is like to live with an individual suffering from mental illness. It succeeds in demonstrating the hardship and difficulty this can bring upon their friends and family, yet does so without demonizing mental illness. It faces the cold, hard fact that mental illness can and often does do harm to relationships, breaks families apart, and leaves people alone and confused.

But not always. By the time we get to the Soft Mother part of the story, we see that while there is no easy solution, relationships can still grow in the face of hurt and uncertainty. There will be nothing easy about it, but it is possible.

The story does admit that the road there is difficult. As Ellery searches for her mother, the stories she’d been told by Valerie cause her to question her own perception of reality. She feels as if she’s been infected by her mother’s instability. The near-future surroundings compound this effect for the reader, pushing them through an almost-familiar scenery, until they too begin to wonder if there is indeed some shadow organization behind Valerie’s disappearance. Maybe there was a spy in Aberdeen after all. But no that can’t be right, but maybe, but no.

And this is where Hard Mother, Spider Mother, Soft Mother shines. It shows that knowing what’s real and what isn’t might not be as clear cut as we’d hope. There will always be some gray area in knowing. But that this can take a back seat to the love and dedication that friends and family are willing to provide one another along a bumpy life.

Publisher: Radix Media

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