The Other Mother by Matthew Green

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Michael is fourteen and he has misplaced his mother.  Or – more accurately – his mother has been replaced by the eponymous ‘other mother’.  He doesn’t really understand how he knows she has been replaced except that everything about the other mother seems a ‘little off’ such as her smile being not quite the same, her hair slightly different and her voice a little louder.

Michael has two younger siblings – Julia and Charlie – and a stepfather Glen who is an ‘a**hole’ – according to Michael – but none of them has noticed anything different.

Michael says when he first realises his real mother has been replaced –

I know it’s impossible to replace a person with an exact duplicate; so I tell myself not to worry.  This can’t be a real thing, especially as I was the only one who saw it.  I must have been doing some version of sleepwalking this morning.  Some half-awake dream.  Maybe it is a puberty thing.  Hormones and stuff messing with my brain.  [35]

To further complicate Michael’s life, he is the main carer of Julia and Charlie; he prepares the meals while his mother works extra shifts as a nurse and Glen pretends that he is a successful entrepreneur.  Michael also has difficulties at school – he is on a behavioural plan and is required to check in with the school counsellor every morning.  He has overturned desks, thrown books out the classroom window and pushed a bus driver in the face.  Michael is also a loner – he has only one friend who is a year younger and in a lower grade.  He is very conscious of his [almost] friendless state but doesn’t know how to change it.

Michael says of himself – I sit in class every day and switch from being completely invisible to everyone around me to being the loser who sits on the edge of every group or alone at every lunch table. …  Sometimes just looking normal for one second is the best thing that happens to me all day.   [173]

However, the girl next door – Sarah – is the most beautiful girl in the school and seems to like Michael!  She becomes a confidant for him and caringly supports him through his struggles.  By using Google, Sarah identifies the condition in which sufferers believe someone close to them has been replaced by a duplicate.  It’s called Capgras delusion and Sarah thinks that is what Michael has.  Michael is not having any of that and he says: Something has happened.  I can’t explain it, but it’s real [150].

The Other Mother is an intriguing story about a young teenager struggling to navigate his way through an increasingly complex world while at the same time having to deal with adult problems beyond his experience.  He is also carrying a secret which is almost too much for him to bear.

Written in the first person with Michael’s fourteen-year-old voice, the novel resonates with authenticity and genuine emotion.  It never descends into self-pity or despondency even when Michael acknowledges to himself the truth about his father’s death.  The novel sensitively explores the thoughts and emotions of a young teenager who is coping with so much in his life and is now beginning to feel the strain.

Matthew Green clearly has insight into the minds of teenagers as well he should given he was once a school teacher.  There are salutary lessons in the book for any aspiring teacher – the shame for a student to be sent outside the classroom; the way some teachers control a class by sarcasm and humiliation; and obviously favouring of the more compliant students.  Our young protagonist Michael experiences each of these and his responses should be noted by any teacher who is still using these strategies.

But the novel is also more than that.  It bravely explores the sense of isolation and aloneness which can be experienced by some students; the burden placed on those young teenagers who are required to care for younger siblings often at the expense of caring for themselves; and – significantly – the weight of secrets especially when kept to protect someone else.  It also speaks about suicide – both the impact of suicide on those who are left behind and the fear for some that suicide may well be a future option for them.

In a later chapter, where Michael has finally found someone to whom he can disclose his secret, the author brilliantly and very sensitively tells the moment by moment process by which Michael tells his story.  Realistically, there is hesitation and uncertainty on both sides – the teller and the listener.  But ultimately Michael says I feel like she has reached across a thousand-mile canyon and taken my hand.  I suddenly feel less alone than I have felt in a long time. [228]

For anyone who was once fourteen years old or knows someone who is, this is a book for you.  It is also a book for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Matthew Green is an author, a storyteller and school teacher.  He has written four books – one of which was a bestseller Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend and his books have been translated into more than 25 languages.

The Other Mother

[2019]

by Matthew Green

Corsair

ISBN 978 1 4721 5239 8

262pp; $29.99

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