Book Review: Mother Tongue


Title: Mother Tongue

Author: Julie Mayhew

Genre: YA / Family / Love & Loss

Pages: 291

Rating: ★★★★☆

Darya is a young woman trying to recover her life after a brutal terrorist attack shakes her rural Russian hometown, killing her young sister. Her father wants her married off to one of his factory employees and her mother has resurfaced as the matriarch of their family, displacing Darya and even blaming her for Nika’s death. But the attack has drawn foreigners to their community, reporters and aid workers who open Darya’s eyes to the world. When she falls for an older man, a journalist from New York, could he be her ticket out of her hometown, her old life and her grief?

This is one of the best books I have read in 2016. I was a little apprehensive when I first read the blurb, because the whole ‘girl falls in love with older man’ storyline is not something that I’m all that into. I thought that might be the main plot-line, but it really wasn’t about that at all, it was about so much more. There were so many other things going on in this book, like grief, loss, tragedy, complex characters and interesting narratives interacting with each other, that the possible romance really took the backseat.  Mother Tongue seriously surpassed all my expectations and blew me away. From page one I was hooked and hanging out to know what would happen next.

I instantly fell in love with the writing style. Julie Mayhew certainly has a way with words. The descriptive language in Mother Tongue is just beautiful, and it was never overdone or overpowering. It felt like I was stepping into another world and that all the characters were real. Even though I’ve never been to Russia I felt like I could clearly visualise both Saratov and Moscow where the story takes place.

The cultural references to Russia were awesome. It’s clear that Mayhew must have done a huge amount of research for Mother Tongue because there are so many cultural references and nuances within the story that gave it such an authentic and realistic feel. I loved the references to Russian fairytales, particularly the one about the brave little hare because it reflected so well on Darya’s character arc. It was nice to get a glimpse into another culture by reading this book.

The storyline was very interesting. Mother Tongue draws on the true events of the 2004 school siege in Beslan to create this piece of historic fiction. There is an author’s note at the end of the book which shows that Mayhew didn’t make the decision to write this book lightly, and that she felt quite apprehensive about writing what is essentially someone else’s story. I thought the way she wrote Mother Tongue was very sensitive and respectful, and I feel like she has woven a beautiful narrative together about the tragedy at Beslan. Not only is this a story about grief and loss, but it is also about finding your voice and yourself in the aftermath of tragedy.

The characters are very realistic and felt like they could be people I know. I thought that the main character, Darya, is particularly well-realised. Darya is an 18 year-old who has been forced to grow up too quickly. Her mother suffers from post-natal depression and has been bed-ridden for about 7 years. Because of this, Darya has been the primary caregiver for her younger sister, Nika, and has taken on the role of ‘mother’ in their family.  When her mother finally emerges from her bedroom and reclaims her position within the family, Darya finds herself completely misplaced. Darya finds that she does not know what she wants in life or how she can go about getting it, until she meets an older man who may be her key to getting out of town and away from the painful memories surrounding the school siege.

Darya is an incredibly well-fleshed out character because she is flawed and vulnerable but also very likeable. I had such a good connection with her throughout the story and I was rooting for her to find happiness and acceptance in the end. Other characters like Nika, Darya’s parents, her brothers, Jonathan, Zlata, Vitaliy, Viktoria, and Ekaterina, were all well-rounded. The conflict between the characters arose out of their different methods for dealing with grief, and their different desires and hopes for themselves and others. I thought they were all well-thought-out and interesting, and all of their individual stories came together to make Mother Tongue and incredible tale.

There are so many other great things about this book that I want to talk about. But I can’t really mention them without giving away spoilers … so I will just have to bottle myself up and wait for some of my friends to read Mother Tongue so I can talk about it. (Hurry up guys).

The only thing keeping Mother Tongue from a 5 star rating is the ending. It wasn’t disappointing or anything, but it just felt a little quick, a little sudden. I can’t really say more without spoiling the whole book, so I won’t, but I just found that things were wrapped up surprisingly neatly considering all of the complexities throughout the rest of the story.

Overall, I really really loved this book. I immediately engaged with Darya and her story and found myself totally drawn into her world. The themes in this story deal with grief and loss and also with growing up and discovering yourself and your place in the world.

Mother Tongue is a raw, heartbreaking look at tragedy and its aftermath, but also a story about hope – and one that you should definitely add to your to be read list.

(Please read it so I can talk about it, I am suffering badly over here!)

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