Book Review

Motherland by Jo McMillan


Rating: ★★★☆☆

Motherland opens in 1978, and introduces us to Jess Mitchell and her mother Eleanor – the only communists in Tamworth.  It’s a strange existence – Jess attends the local grammar school and struggles to bring her belief in socialism in line with the requirements of the curriculum.  At weekends, she helps Eleanor to sell the Morning Star – a communist paper which gets little, if any, take up in the Midlands town.

When Eleanor is invited to teach in East Germany over the summer, they jump at the chance to mingle with others who share their political beliefs.  There, they meet Peter and his daughter Martina.  And Eleanor sees an opportunity for companionship and romance.  But the party doesn’t see this relationship as being in its best interests, and takes drastic steps to intervene.

Motherland is told from Jess’s perspective, and spans April 1978 to December 1984 – some of her most formative years.  Jess is a bit of an odd ball, committed to socialism, yet with a little rebellious streak that never quite breaks out the way I wanted it to.  At an age when so many girls are trying to fit in, Jess remains aloof, not caring that she’s something of a target because of her differences.  It’s not an easy path, but I did respect her for it.

Whilst Jess is an interesting character, my sympathy lay with Eleanor throughout.  She really has given up everything for the party with seemingly little thanks, other than the occasional pat on the back.  I really wanted to shake her and tell her to chase her man, but this isn’t that kind of novel.  So whilst I found her acceptance of the situation to be an alien concept to me (I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever felt so strongly about politics (or religion, for that matter) that I’d toe the line in the way that she does), I admired her dedication to the cause.

I don’t agree with a word you say… but I have to say you’ve kept on saying it.  You haven’t given up.  I admire you for that.

I liked Motherland, but I didn’t love it.  It felt longer than it’s ~260 pages, and there were periods where it felt as though nothing much was happening.  That said, I did enjoy the humorous tone used throughout.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it has the kind of humour that will make you smirk as you’re reading it.  This is an interesting, quirky little read.

Motherland is published in paperback on 16 June.  Many thanks to Yassine Belkacemi at John Murray for the review copy.

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