All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett & I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

I’m catching up with reviews of two February releases that I spent the whole of last month submerged in. These are early entries on my Best of 2023 list: A lovely memoir about grief and gardening, caring for an ill child and a dying parent; and a riveting true crime-inspired novel, set on a boarding school campus, that rages at injustice and violence against women.


All My Wild Mothers: Motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett

Early in February, I attended the online book launch via Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere. With conversation, readings and song, it was the ideal introduction to the themes of this debut memoir by a poet. The book is composed of dozens of brief autobiographical, present-tense essays, each titled after a wildflower with traditional healing properties. The chapters are headed by a black-and-white woodcut of each plant (by Bennett’s husband, Adam Clarke) and a précis of its medicinal uses, as well as where it is found. Again and again, these descriptions site the flora on edgelands or “disturbed ground” – the perfect metaphorical tie-in to Bennett’s tumultuous life and the comfort that creating an apothecary garden brought.

Bennett is the youngest of six children. When she was expecting her son – much longed for after multiple pregnancy losses – news came that her eldest sister had died in a canoeing accident. At age two, her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; managing his condition has imposed a heavy emotional burden. And years later, she was the primary caregiver for her elderly mother as she was dying of mesothelioma. The memoir’s format – which arose in part because it was written over the course of 10 years, during stolen moments – realistically presents bereavement and caring as ongoing, cyclical challenges rather than one-time events.

There are no simple solutions offered here, nothing so pat as that ‘gardening heals all hurts’, but Bennett writes into the broken places and finds joy in what comes to life spontaneously in nature or in her ramshackle yard on a social housing estate in Cumbria. She recalls a horse chestnut tree that looked over her outside the window of her childhood home; she and her son take impish delight in guerrilla gardening and sometimes disastrous cooking projects with foraged fruit. Some of my favourite individual vignettes were “Elder,” about the magic and medicine of making elderberry syrup from the few village trees that escape the chainsaw; “Dandelion,” about her trio of older sisters, who were Greenham Common protestors and always tried to protect her as well as nature; “Herb Robert,” about her sister-in-law’s funeral; and especially “Honeysuckle,” about a local agricultural show where the officious organizers make them feel like interlopers yet her son wins first place for their feral, fecund garden.

Many side topics twine into the narrative as well: a difficult relationship with a controlling mother; a family history that takes in boarding schools, cults, road trips, risk taking and mental health issues; the economic disparity that leads to one set of rules for the rich and another for those on benefits. But the core of the book is a tender mother–son relationship. “I can give him this: a seed, with all its defiant hope against the dark; and the memory that once, we grew a garden out of rock, and waste, and all things broken, and it thrived.” Sitting somewhere between creative nonfiction and nature essays, it’s a beautiful read for any fan of women’s life writing, especially if you share the interests in grief or gardening. I hope we’ll see it recognized on the Barbellion and Wainwright Prize shortlists alike.

Readalikes I have reviewed: A Still Life by Josie George, The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo, The Cure for Sleep by Tanya Shadrick

With thanks to Victoria Bennett and Two Roads for the free copy for review.


I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai

I’m a big fan of Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and have her other two books lined up to read, so I was excited to hear about this new work and put it on my Most Anticipated list for the year. My interest was redoubled by Laura’s review, which likens it to a cross between Prep and My Dark Vanessa – irresistible.

Bodie Kane grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family in Indiana, and has beneficent Mormon neighbours to thank for the tuition money that allowed her to attend Granby, an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, in the early to mid-1990s. She was an angry and awkward high school student, yet her memories of Granby and the friendships she made there are still an emotional mainstay more than two decades later. In 2018, she is a successful film professor with a podcast about Hollywood starlets. Although she is separated from Jerome, her artist husband, he lives next door and they co-parent their two children.

After an invitation comes from Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting, Bodie trades Los Angeles for a bitter New England winter. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge her obsession with the 1995 murder of her former Granby roommate, Thalia Keith, who was found dead in the swimming pool one March morning after a play performance. Bodie has never been comfortable with the flawed case against the Black athletics coach, Omar Evans, who has been imprisoned ever since. When one of her students chooses to make Thalia’s murder the subject of a podcast, it’s all the justification Bodie needs to dive deep into her pet hypothesis: Thalia was sleeping with the music director, Denny Bloch, and he was involved in her death in some way. Her blinkered view threatens to exclude a key explanation. Still, the informal sleuthing she and her students do is enough to warrant a follow-up hearing in 2022, but they – and Omar – are up against a broken system.

Makkai has taken her cues from the true crime genre and constructed a convincing mesh of evidence and theories. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, from Dorian, the bully who once humiliated Bodie with sexual slurs, to Fran, the faculty kid/gay best friend who now lives and works on campus herself and continues to be Bodie’s trusty backup. The combinations of background + teenage behaviour + 40-something lives all feel authentic in their randomness (when I saw that Makkai sourced 24 names from indie bookstore supporters, I realized afresh just how real, as opposed to ‘made-up’, these characters feel).

At times I wondered if there was too much detail on the case and the former classmates; I might even have streamlined the novel by doing away with the 2022 section altogether, though it ends up being crucial to the plot. But Makkai has so carefully crafted these pen portraits, and so intimately involved us in Bodie’s psyche, that it’s easy to become invested in the story. What’s more, the novel introduces a seam of rage about violence towards women – so predictably excused and allowed to recur by a justice system weighted against victims –

What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl.

let’s say it was the one where the rugby team covered up the girl’s death and the school covered for the rugby team. Actually it was the one where the therapist spent years grooming her. It was the one where the senator, then a promising teenager, shoved his d*ck in the girl’s face. … It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp.

– yet also finds nuance in the situation when Bodie’s ex-husband is subjected to exaggerated #MeToo accusations. It’s timely, daring, intelligent, enthralling storytelling. Susan (review here) and I are both hoping to see this make the Women’s Prize longlist next week.

Readalikes I have reviewed: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

With thanks to Fleet for the proof copy for review.


What are the best 2023 books you’ve read so far?

21 responses

  1. Well, given the readalikes, I suspect I’d love both of these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Especially the T1D caregiving theme of the Bennett.


      1. Yes, I’m very interested to read about t1d from that perspective!


  2. I read The Borrower by Makkai and wasn’t that impressed, but I do like the sound of this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This feels like much more sophisticated and nuanced work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the link and mention, Rebecca. A bit of judicious cutting with the Makkai would have worked for me, too, but I still have my fingers crossed for next week’s announcement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! It seems a perfect WP book for the themes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved All My Wild Mothers too, as soon as I read the premise, I wanted to read it immediately and wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the structure, the woodcuts, the ambitious project and the commitment to homeschooling her son which came with the beautiful acknowledgement of all that he taught her.

    So many good reads already in 2023, Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor is one of my standout reads this year, it was so compelling and unlike like anything else I’ve read and yet there was an authenticity to it, that comes from within another culture; it felt like a privilege to step inside that purview and be a witness to. I’m hoping to see it on the women’s prize longlist too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see how you were drawn to the themes of All My Wild Mothers. I completely forgot to mention she homeschooled her son!

      The Oduor is on the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist, I see. Often books make it onto multiple prize lists.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, fingers crossed for the WP longlist for Makkai! It must have a v good shot. So interesting that the same long quote from the novel jumped out to us both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I didn’t even check that we hadn’t overlapped on quotes. She has a few of those “the one where…” passages, but this was the one I marked to go back to.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The Makkai is on my list. I’ve heard lots of good things about it.

    Do you know, I’ve finished 20 books so far this year and only read one book published in 2023. Most of my reading to date seems to be 2022 books. The one is Prince Harry’s Spare, which I enjoyed reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, interesting! Because I get sent a fair number of review books and review pre-release e-books for Shelf Awareness et al., a lot of my reading has been from 2023. But plenty from 2021-2 as well, and most of that from the library.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like your enthusiasm for the Makkai, though her last one left a bad taste in my mouth! It was also too detailed and (i felt) needed an edit. The first one sounds really good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I actually DNFed The Great Believers when it first came out, but I kept my proof copy because I was sure I’d want to give it a try another time. So we’ll see if I feel the same way on the second go round!


  8. All My Wild Mothers speaks of the empathy, compassion and expectations placed on many women in many societies of the world. The strength shown to survive the next day, which brings more of the same responsibilities, is humbling. Inspiring. As a reader, is it frightening or numbing? Are you shocked or are you nodding your head in recognition. It depends, I think, where you’re sitting.

    This year so far, I’ve enjoyed reading three of Sophie Green’s novels and I’m into her fourth. The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle, The Bellbird River Country Choir, and Thursdays at Orange Blossom House were written with similar structures. They’re feel-good stories about women who gained strength when they came together for a central purpose, though their lives showed diverse stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am in awe of women in that sandwich generation who have such relentless caregiving duties.


  9. Makkai is somehow a writer I’ve missed. Maybe I need to catch up?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would certainly recommend!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. ‘All My Wild Mothers’ sounds wonderful. I have a great respect for homeschooling parents (usually mothers), provided they do it well. Also for those caring for elderly relatives, especially spouses whose partners have dementia or adult children who take their ailing parents into their homes. I feel fortunate to have escaped so far, partly by living in a different country to my older family members. I don’t think I’m cut out for that level of caring.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do, too. I feel relieved that caring is something I will (most likely) never need to do — though my mother’s sudden death was hard in its own way, seeing her decline slowly, and knowing I was an ocean away and unable to help, would have been harder.

      Liked by 1 person

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