A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas - book review: This is a story both achingly real and powerfully human, observed with a sharp eye and a compassionate heart
When 22-year-old Dan Griffin walked into a top London trauma therapy unit, his severe anxiety problems seemed nothing out of the ordinary…
But it wasn’t his condition that struck the unit’s director, Ruth Hartland, with such a powerful thump in her solar plexus as his resemblance to her own beloved son who walked out on the family nearly two years ago and has never been seen since.
As a clinical psychologist in the NHS for many years, Bev Thomas has a pretty good idea of what makes us humans tick – particularly in times of extreme stress – so when she decided to put pen to paper for this deep, dark and disturbing debut suspense thriller, it could only result in mind mazes of the most complex and compelling variety.
A Good Enough Mother is a stunning and original literary novel, written with an extraordinary depth of psychological insight and an almost ethereal beauty, and exploring the unique dynamics between a therapist and their patient, and a mother and her children.
Haunting and bleak, this is an enthralling story of family relationships, a mother’s undying love, of desperation, ethical dilemmas, emotional upheaval and heartbreaking anguish, all played out in a slow-motion, compulsive drama which grips like a vice right through to its shocking and yet bittersweet conclusion.
As the director of a trauma therapy unit, Dr Ruth Hartland is used to rising to difficult tasks. A psychotherapist with years of experience, she is confident, capable and excellent at her job, and is highly respected in her field and in her team.
But her family life tells a very different story; her marriage is seriously fractured, her daughter Carolyn has moved far away to Australia, and her teenage son, Tom – Carolyn’s twin – disappeared nearly two years ago and no one knows where he is, or even if he is alive.
Tom, the child who struggled to fit in and the son that Ruth always favoured, was a fragile, sensitive and anxious boy, the exact opposite of his cheerful and resilient sister. How did she fail him, and how can she find him after all this time?
When Ruth is assigned to new patient Dan Griffin, a young man suffering from anxiety after he was viciously attacked in a park, Ruth is taken aback by his striking resemblance to Tom and is determined to help him.
But today is a bad day for Ruth because it’s close to Tom’s birthday and ‘the sheer effort to pump myself back into shape simply feels too much.’
As a therapist, Ruth knows exactly what she should do in the best interests of her client, but as a mother, she starts making very different choices – choices based on emotion rather than logic – and very soon she will make a decision that will have profound and disastrous consequences.
Using a therapist’s experience and her own innate intelligence, Thomas combines a tense, edge-of-the seat mystery with a riveting and psychologically shrewd domestic drama. With bated breath, readers witness Ruth – driven by guilt that she wasn’t a good enough mother – falling deeper and deeper into a situation that is increasingly out of her control and dangerously outside of her professional boundaries.
As Ruth’s carefully managed public persona is eroded by the grief and sense of loss she has fought so hard to keep private, a torrent of gut-wrenching angst is released, clouding her judgment and obscuring her sense of perception.
This is a story both achingly real and powerfully human, observed with a sharp eye and a compassionate heart… it will terrify and shock, but it will also impress, inform and set book club tongues wagging.
(Faber & Faber, hardback, £12.99)