There are stories about good mothers and bad mothers, attentive and neglectful mothers: and then there’s Adrienne Brodeur’s mother, Malabar, who deserves a book all to herself. Adrienne is 14 and on holiday on Cape Cod with Malabar and her stepfather, Charles, when Malabar wakes her in the middle of the night to announce that Charles’s closest friend, Ben Souther, has just kissed her. “What do you think I should do?” Malabar asks her teenage daughter, though they both know that this is “a rhetorical question”.
By the next morning, Malabar has begun an affair with Ben, swearing Rennie, as she calls her, to secrecy. But it gets worse: Malabar co-opts the young girl as an active participant in their liaison for the next 10 years, using her as a cover for her hook-ups with her lover and getting Rennie to lie on her behalf, both to Charles and to Ben’s wife. “I became her protector and sentinel,” Brodeur remembers, adding with chilling clear-sightedness that from now on the main purpose of her existence would be to “bear witness to my mother’s seduction”. “This,” she adds dryly, “marked the beginning of the rest of my life.”
It’s a life of guilt-wracked deception, in which almost all of Adrienne’s energy is spent in the service of her mother’s appetites. Malabar is an expert cook who writes a food column for the Boston Globe. To spend more time with Ben, an avid hunter, she comes up with the ruse that they should co-author a wild game cookbook: “My mother and Ben shucked oysters, plucked feathers from mallards, ripped innards out of delicate woodland creatures. Their patter was filled with pornographic double-entendres about the game they roasted, the savoury loins, luscious breasts, tender thighs.”
By the time she is 16, Adrienne has developed chronic gastric pains: she literally can’t stomach her role as her mother’s confidante any longer. “I’m sure this is all my fault,” Malabar says to the doctor. “As Rennie probably told you, I can be a bit exuberant with the cayenne.” But she continues to cannibalise her daughter, joking privately that Rennie is “the best psychiatrist she’d ever had, not to mention the cheapest”. As Brodeur leaves for college, Malabar warns her: “Don’t ever forget that you and I are two halves of one whole.”
Wild Game, in other words, is a story of child abuse, though it’s marketed (down to the Lolita-ish image of a halter-topped pubescent girl on its cover) as a tale of wayward romance, and the complex “nature of family”. Make no mistake: it’s infinitely darker than that, though the darkness is tamped down under a polished veneer. The Cordon Bleu recipes and the cocktail rituals of Malabar’s moneyed East Coast set belie a world marked by casual violence and grotesque consumption – of food, of alcohol and of people. Her affair with Ben starts just after he makes her a present of a dozen decapitated squab (he drains their blood into a bucket after slitting their necks), a gift that excites her deeply. The hunting and cooking and sex (“Ben is like a wild animal,” Malabar boasts) are buoyed by a steady tide of bourbon and Manhattan “power packs”, needed to take the edge off the reality of what is happening. After the affair has been exposed, the sub-surface aggression comes to a head in a climactic meal of lobster served by Ben’s wife to her rival’s terrified daughter: “Lily cracked the long tail section of her lobster, causing a projectile of juice and shell to fly across the table and smack me on the cheek. She tore into the creature as if she had a personal vendetta against it, tugging off all 10 legs, twisting the claws until they gave with a poof, and separating the body from the tail … The smell of ocean and carnage filled my nostrils and I felt a wave of nausea.”
Yet the aggression never quite erupts. This is the deep narrative: on the surface, Brodeur is scrupulously sparing of everyone involved, and especially of her mother. She represents her as a woman at least as much sinned against as sinning, and herself as culpably complicit in Malabar’s betrayals – though it’s clear that she had no power to resist the grooming to which she was subjected. “It would be years before I understood the forces that shaped who she was and who I became, and recognised the hurt that we both caused,” she writes. At this point I longed simply to lay the damn book down and put my arms around her.
Where did all this bad mothering come from? Malabar’s own mother, we learn, was “alcoholic and domineering”, her only legacy of value to her daughter a “gemstone-studded collar” that Malabar has promised to pass on to Rennie when she marries. With dreadful inevitability, Adrienne, moved by a last-ditch, subliminal desire to please this 24-carat narcissist, enters into a disastrous marriage with Ben’s son. And yet, like Malabar’s love, that necklace proves to be forever out of reach. When the moment arrives to hand it over, Malabar decides to wear it herself in a bid to win Ben back, turning her daughter’s wedding day – as she already has her life – into her personal battleground. “I wanted her to have it,” Brodeur writes.
We, in turn, want to scream at her to stop being gracious and start getting angry. There’s a promising near-cathartic moment when Brodeur – by now a mother herself – takes the necklace and refuses to give it back: “I pictured every conceivable way I could wound her: I’d never speak to her again. I’d keep my children from her. I’d sell the necklace. I’d throw it into the harbour. I’d strangle her with it.”
She does none of these things. Wild Game could have been a deadly weapon: instead it’s a supremely civilised, and so necessarily tame, attempt at making sense of the horror at the heart of this particular mother-daughter relationship.
• Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur is published by Chatto (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.
Source: The Guardian