The mother of all horror storytelling, Mothers’ Milk is an unsettling assortment of short-circuited motherhood, as it relates the potential worst-case scenarios of helicopter-mothering pushed too far with morbid sense of humour and stark narrative style echoing the one pursued by French Naturalism in its matter-of-factly detachment, thanks to a svelte clinical but not cynical prose and agile dialogue.
Thrice a winner of the Autumn Poetry Competition as a teenager and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Kent, fresh of her PGCE at Canterbury’s Christ Church, 22-year-old Amy Montegriffo says she chose to write about motherhood exactly because she is not a mother. Interestingly enough, everyone seems to have an opinion on how to raise someone else’s children, and so she thought to add her ironic voice to the chorus with warped examples of mothers who know exactly what’s best for their children and consistently act upon it.
“Mother is a verb: it is something you do, not just what you are,” claims the teaser printed on the back cover featuring the close-up of an aqua-blue pacifier splattered with lumpy drops of a maroon liquid, in a composition created by the author and Gabrielle Garcia, photographed by Ashley Hugot. Amy adds: “Mothers’ Milk is about mothers who don’t ‘mother’ well. It’s a series of gothic stories that show you how not to mother. I’ve used lots of vivid, haunting, gory descriptions of sensitive subject matters. The characters’ actions are deeply disturbing and every child in the book suffers in some unfortunate manner. That’s why I wouldn’t want any child to read it!”
In fact, Amy has managed to pack in her compact booklet an alarmingly varied parade of sociopaths portrayed in dismayed upsurge, where the common denominator is the confidence of being the perfect mother who tries her hardest at loving her children. “Inspiration came from a multitude of places: from conversations, news and books I’ve read. The plots are definitely not inspired by my own life, thank goodness! Whilst some stories do have elements of truth in them, of extreme cases lifted from newspapers, they are all dramatised and exaggerated. Please don’t believe that the examples of mothers I tell about are in any way average!” the author says. “Each story is named after a quality a mother should have, and each story carries a grotesque twist on that theme. My favourite are Nutrition and Loyalty, the first because it also is the first one I wrote, and the one that you can really appreciate the more you read it! Loyalty’s genesis is rather comedic to me: I agreed to writing fiction about windmills and the result was Loyalty.” Unlike the other stories, Loyalty isn’t just about a mother-child relationship, but more about a love triangle sparking extreme sibling rivalry between teenage daughter and toddler son, culminating in a gory take of tilting at windmills.
Nutrition is a sizzling mouth-watering twisted tale that will leave you hungry for more and will urge you to munch through the whole book in one sitting, unless the stomach-churning shock of Love puts you off for good half-way-through! Alas, don’t surrender, or you won’t make it all the way through Devotion, which closes this gallery of mummy-dear dysfunctional portraits with a good-faith misjudgement of biblical proportions: a bigot mother, aptly named Eva, is enthused to immortalise her son’s purity by the example by his teddy bear’s namesake Abraham. The ultimate endecalogue of motherly love gone sour, Mothers’ Milk commands the cardinal virtues for nurturing, protecting, supporting, moulding the young into responsible adults ready to fly the nest – if they make it to adults all in one piece, without emotional or physical scars, that is!
Together with Loyalty, the author’s favourite, Nutrition and Love are in my opinion the two stories that best stand out, because they don’t focus just on the mother-child relationship, but span other issues within the family – or lack of thereof. With wicked wit, the opening story describes an exclusive cooking class where an élite of housewives compete for a self-assured domestic goddess’s approval. All seems baked to golden perfection until the startling ending, when the Stepford Wives morph into Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett at the grand finale show-and-tell of their boldly acquired culinary proficiency.
In Love, the author lucidly discusses the extreme lengths of psychosis to which a fragile mind may be driven by frustrated maternity. I must admit that, despite being an avid consumer of noir both in print and on screen, with this one, I had to put the book down, close my eyes and wait for the spine chill to subside before careering through the macabre crescendo, told with forensic élan, about the tragic irony throttling an entire police force that is clueless in dealing with this unaccountable serial infanticide and the trail of desolation she’s left around, towards the heart-wrenching clause ‘the only dry eyes belonged to her babies’. If Amy were fencing, this would be her winning lunge straight into the reader’s heart.
Macabre recurs in other stories like Adaptability, about a set of twins growing too fast for their mother’s taste, or the fine example of unconditional Support offered by a mother to her introvert son in his sinister struggle to socialise with other kids, ‘successfully’ resulting in him growing up to be a teacher and an orphanage director. A committed mother of a pretty little girl pushes the boundaries of resourceful and fool-proof Protection from paedophiles and predators, on the very day she blooms into a gorgeous teenager.
Communication unbiasedly discusses the thorny topic of minors splashed all over social media, depicting the baby bloggers’ virulent war to go viral; Commitment offers a homophobic mother’s bizarrely sensible solution to her son’s coming out; Discipline cruelly dons a new meaning to au-pairing for the spoilt brat’s dreaming of Amsterdam holidays; and finally, Encouragement proves how too often the perfect child is as-good-as-dead lonely.
Stylistically impeccable, fictionally inventive, pedagogically provocative, mischievous and cheekily fun, Amy’s book is a wakeup call to all Mother-Hens out there not to degenerate into Mommazillas, albeit Amy hastens to disclaim, in the opening dedication as well as the closing acknowledgements, that her own mum is anything like these women.
Now on sale at local bookshops, on Amazon, Blurb and Waterstone with the pitch ‘a collection of stories about motherhood that you cannot read with your children’, it was launched in Kent as part of the author’s coursework, and it features pencil illustrations by Amy’s sister Natalie Massetti. “She has the style I was going for, so I asked her to collaborate to my project. I discussed my ideas with her and she visualised them on paper. She was absolutely fantastic drawing illustrations that add a lot to my book.”
illustrations | Natalie Massetti