BOOK REVIEW: Mother Land by Paul Theroux – July 2017

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Once, in my reading, I stumbled on a prayer that went: “May I learn to walk in the light I have been given.” It worked for me because I knew I didn’t understand myself or my situation terribly well and this prayer about accepting the limitations of one’s own vision made my lack of wisdom seem less reproachable. I bring it up because the chief criticism one can make—and it has been made—of Paul Theroux’s Mother Land is that, although the author describes his relationship with his mother in baroque detail for over five hundred pages, he never does come to understand it completely. To this criticism I would reply that it’s possible to turn the issue around and say that, given the way his mother treated him—indifference, rejection, and outright malice were what he got, assuming he’s telling the truth—it’s a miracle Theroux understands as much as he does about his mother and their relationship.

I should confess that I came to the book with avid curiosity and lots of baggage. I’d recently completed a memoir of my reading, much of which is devoted to an analysis of his work. His books make clear that Theroux not only had trouble relating to women as equals, but that he had a well of resentment, even hatred, of women which could spring to life at any moment. This troubled me because I had come to know Theroux as a decent, intelligent, courageous human being. How could he be so deformed in this one respect? Unless I was mistaken, the explanation had to lie in his relationship to his mother. But, although Theroux wrote about his own life over and over, and to great effect, he had hardly a word to say on this subject. Well, now I knew why.

Mother Land is the furious, vehement, nearly out of control indictment of a diabolically cruel and ineffably powerful mother. That, and a series of acid etchings of dysfunctional family life, though “dysfunctional” cannot convey the poisonous, byzantine nature of the struggles waged among the Theroux’s brothers and sisters, all seven of them vying constantly for their mother’s approval. Written from the viewpoint of a successful novelist and non-fiction writer, the twice-divorced father of two (in other words, Theroux himself), who’s come back to his place of origin after a life spent far away, it’s the book Theroux has been sitting on all his life but couldn’t write as long as his mother was alive. I suspect he had to write it in order to keep from imploding. Its obsessive quality, which some reviewers panned, constitutes its genius and its strength.

To someone steeped in Theroux’s oeuvre, the book is the capstone of his literary achievements and the answer to most questions about their source. Here, for instance, is the reason why Theroux spent half his life travelling the earth in trains, busses, oxcarts, and canoes, for it was away from home that he felt most like himself. (His best known book, The Great Railway Bazaar, is about a train trip from London to Siberia and back.)

This wish to get out of the house, a quest for privacy and anonymity, established a pattern in my life, making me a traveler. It wasn’t accidental that I had lived for years in Africa, and years more in Britain. I feared being overwhelmed by my family, and if I had been successful in my choices, I would have stayed away. . . . But I lived near Mother, and what I had always feared would happen to me was happening, for we were all at home now, children again, and I was so alone that my years of travel seemed idyllic, for being isolated at home was the severest sort of exile.

This kind of paragraph, with its self-reflective and explanatory tone, supplies the counterweight to scenes of the mother’s ingenious betrayals and of the ways the brothers and sisters contrive to do one another in. In Mother Land Theroux takes stock of his life by telling the story of his painful beginnings, and in doing so comes to see his creativity and success as a reaction to the hurts and deprivations of childhood. This is made all the more poignant and, at times, excruciating, by his return to the very circumstances he had spent most his life avoiding, exposing him to everything that’s most dangerous to him–much more dangerous than the perils of the desert or the jungle—with the result that he falls right back into old behavior patterns from which he can’t free himself, however much he might want to: a drama simultaneously heroic and self-defeating.

So the book is both a fierce indictment of the author’s upbringing and a brave attempt to face and understand himself in light of it, an ongoing project if there ever was one, and an effort for which he deserves to be commended. Theroux brings to it the skills of a lifetime and the passions of a person still seeking his own salvation. I found it compelling reading from beginning to end. It’s true that he makes only a passing attempt to understand what made his mother the way she was, and has not much compassion, either, for his siblings. But if, at the end, he falls short of full understanding, who are we to condemn him? He has fought the good fight, and walked in the light he has been given.~