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STONE MOTHERS by Erin Kelly: Book Review

Growing up in a town where virtually everyone was employed or dependent in some way on a mental hospital has left its mark on Marianne Thackeray.  She had always wanted to leave Nusstead, but with no particular plan in mind that seemed like a forlorn hope.  However, after high school she was able to move to London and begin a successful career, and she determined to put her past behind her.  For Marianne, the saying “you can’t go home again” has another meaning–you don’t want to.

The statement that opens Stone Mothers is a chilling warning of what to expect.  Its author was the Chief Inspector of Asylums and Advisor for the Commission of Lunacy–can you think of a more frightening title?  His report, written in 1868, extols the virtues of the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum and states that “many women committed due to domestic discord or excess of childbearing request to stay.”  If that were true, one can only imagine the lives these women were trying to escape.

Marianne’s husband Sam thinks he has given her a wonderful gift, an apartment they can use as a getaway from their busy London lives, close to the cottage where she was born and her mother and sister still live.  In fact, Marianne’s reaction is horror, guilt, and fright at having to move into the newly designed Park Royal Manor.  To her it will always be Nazareth Hospital, formerly called the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the very place whose merits were extolled by the 19th-century Chief Inspector of Asylums.

The book’s title comes from an earlier time; the Victorians called their mental hospitals stone mothers.  The asylums were built with one method of dealing with mental illness, but almost as soon as they were completed, psychiatric treatment was much improved and made such places dangerous and obsolete.   For Marianne, the memories of Nazareth can’t be expunged.  Even worse than living at the newly-named Park Royal Manor, she thinks, would be telling Sam what happened at the hospital more than two decades earlier.

For generations Nazareth Hospital was the economic center of Nusstead.  Then, in a campaign spearheaded by Helen Greenlaw, a Tory member of Parliament, the hospital was closed, turning the town into a bankrupt version of its former self.  Entire families were left jobless and destitute, including the father of Marianne’s secret high school lover, Jesse, and her own mother.

Jesse has never forgiven Helen for her part in closing the hospital, and neither has anyone else in the town.  Now he has a plan, he tells Marianne, to make Helen pay.  Marianne responds that the fact is that the three of them are equally to blame for what happened in the aftermath of the hospital’s closing, but Jesse doesn’t perceive it that way and can’t be persuaded to leave it alone.

Consequently, Marianne sees her whole world, which includes her husband and their very vulnerable daughter, crumbling before her eyes.

Erin Kelly has written a thriller in many shades of gray.  The characters do bad things, but mostly not for bad reasons.  Their motives, if not commendable, are understandable, and the reader is torn between condemnation and sympathy.  Stone Mothers is a truly skillful, beautifully written novel.

You can read more about Erin Kelly at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.