‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41 year old widow, Joanna Malling and a married man, six years her junior. The relationship is complicated by the fact that the young man is her son-in-law, the husband of her most beloved daughter.
Joanna Malling was tragically left a widow at the age of 21, when her husband succumbed to a deadly bout of pneumonia. Left with a young baby daughter called Elizabeth or ‘Libby’, Joanna, though overcome with loss and grief was able to carve out a life for herself and her daughter.
It is at the age of 41, when we meet Joanna Malling again. Libby has grown into a young woman and is staying with her friends the Mortimers. The Mortimers have a daughter, Janet, who is Libby’s close friend and confidante. One day Libby writes to Joanna to tell her that she is engaged to be married. The relationship between mother and daughter is quite a strong one, which is apparent because of the dismay and sense of loss that Joanna experiences on discovering the news. Newly relocated to a Victorian house in the small suburban town of Tadwych, Joanna awaits the arrival of her daughter over the weekend, to learn further news about her daughter’s engagement.
Joanna learns that Libby’s fiancée is a 35 year old decorated soldier in the army, much older than Libby, in fact closer in age to her mother than Libby herself.
When Joanna first meets her future son-in-law for the first time,there is a certain degree of awkwardness between the two of them. Although both of them try to forge a feeling of friendship for the sake of Libby, it is rather forced.
After their marriage, Libby and her husband take up temporary furnished rooms in London, anticipating news of Steven’s foreign posting. Young and naive, Libby spends her days dreaming of exotic foreign idylls and impossibly romantic scenarios in which she reigns supreme with Steven. Her bubble is burst, when Steven contracts a nasty bout of pleurisy and has to be admitted to hospital. Extremely upset, Libby stays with her friends, the Mortimers and promises of evening parties, the planning of evening attire, good food and stimulating company quickly assuage Libby’s troubles and please her slightly snobbish sensibilities.
Joanna is seized with terror that the fate that struck her at a young age, that is the death of her husband, will similarly strike a blow to Libby. Luckily, however, Stephen recovers and spends time recovering at the Mortimer’s house in London.
When news of his next posting reaches the young couple, Libby is particularly disappointed to find that rather than be posted abroad, the posting is to Tadwych, the small suburban town where her mother resides. However, after a while Libby is comforted with the thought that she would be near her mother.
Despite strenuous effort, Joanna is unable to find suitable housing for the young couple and suggests that they move into her house and that she find rooms for herself. Libby and Steven protest and an understanding is reached where the young couple agree to a separate sitting room, so as to allow the young couple their own freedom and much needed space.
However, the three people confined to one house develop routines and rituals to occupy their time during the evenings. They often find themselves solving the crossword together, talking and gradually discussing books and poetry. Steven and Joanna discover they have much in common intellectually – a meeting of two minds- a rare thing for Joanna – who had not shared this facility with even her husband. One thing leads to another and suddenly Steven and Joanna find themselves in a situation too close for comfort. It is during this time – that sometimes Steven drops the use of his adopted name for his mother in law – ‘Mamma’ and uses Joanna instead. But although there is an increasing awareness and realisation of this mutual attraction for one another, Joanna and Steven share a great love for Libby and they must choose between hurting Libby or sublimating their romance. It is a hard decision to make, but it must be made.
Tutton cleverly juxtaposes Libby’s immaturity, preoccupation with self, hint of snobbishness and her naive belief that she can change the world, including the appearance and manners of her husband against Joanna’s maturity, wisdom, superior taste, intellect and wider reading. Though Libby has youth on her side, Joanna also has her charms but they are mostly of her mind.
…Libby said: “Go on talking about poetry, you two. I like listening to my clever relatives.”
‘Mamma’ deals with quite a taboo topic – a relationship between two people, who though not related by blood are related to one another by that of close affinity. The common link in this case is a most beloved daughter/ wife. This is quite an unusual and brave topic to deal with and I must say that Tutton navigates the difficult topic with great sensibility. This is not a premeditated story of lust and want. It is a story of the mutual attraction of two people who find they are on the same intellectual plane. From this, is derived a need for greater intimacy.
Joanna imagines what Steven’s hair would feel like to touch in her wildest imaginings. This is a woman who has been robbed of sexual intimacy for the majority of her adult life. Yet, towards the end, Joanna feels that she would be satisfied if only Steven would admit to her – that he loves her too. This knowledge would fuel the rest of her lonely, solitary life.
The relationship that develops between mother in law and son in law is not at all pre meditated. It very slowly and naturally develops as a result of living at close quarters and the genuine meeting of intelligent minds. In this way, the development of plot isn’t nauseating although it can make for quite uncomfortable reading at times. There is a strong degree of sexual tension in the novel as well.
Ultimately, ‘Mamma’ is a story about protracted loneliness, the loneliness that a widow might experience when she has been bereft of intimacy and companionship for the majority of her adult life. At the end of the story, do we feel sympathy for Joanna or not? … I will leave the reader to find that out.
I received an ARC of ‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton from British Library Publishing but all opinions are my own.