Book Review of The Push
by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)
Ashley AudrainThe Push
Pages 303, Price INR 408 A Gripping Psychological Drama
Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, The Push (2021) is an immersive psychological drama that explores the darker underside of motherhood in all its intensity. Written with a compelling force, the book makes readers, mothers and non-mothers alike, recognize the worst fears that often lurk in the backdrop of parenting and ponder upon the debate of “nature versus nurture”.
The story starts on the night of Christmas Eve, with the narrator Blythe Connor sitting in her car and watching her former husband’s house. As she observes the happy family comprising the couple, their toddler son and her teenage daughter, she appears to be a stalker and somewhat mentally unhinged. However, there is an undercurrent of pathos as she takes in the domestic bliss and remembers being “the needed one” at one time.
Blythe had come to give her ex-husband, Fox, a stack of papers in which she had written her side of the story. From then onwards, the entire novel is a flashback recounting how Blythe met Fox and how they began their life together. We return to the present only at the very end. Wedged in between, are staccato bursts of Blythe’s mother’s and grandmother’s history (Cecilia and Etta, respectively). Both Cecilia and Etta are profoundly unloving and have an abusive, psychotic streak in them. Well aware of this, Blythe is determined to be the warm, comforting mother she never had and prove herself. But her daughter, Violet, seems cold and distant, and resists affection. Her behavior too becomes increasingly disruptive and rouses Blythe’s worst fears. But Fox and others around Blythe view it as the struggles of an anxious mother. Is she, indeed, over-interpreting Violet’s actions? Or is she so accustomed to witnessing abuse that it appears as a pattern to her? Why does she feel more relaxed and affectionate towards her second child and son, Sam? What are the limits to unconditional love? Audrain deftly circles these questions while making Blythe herself, as well as
the reader, question her sanity.
The second-person narration by Blythe has an intimate feel as she confesses her feelings, fears, and vulnerability, lying bare why she thinks the way she does and the things that come to her notice. To help the reader understand the scenario in its entirety, the author intersperses Etta and Cecilia’s stories in the third person point of view. Also, the chapters on Etta’s history are in italics with the year as the chapter title, marking a creditable experimentation with font. The last chapter again, is written in the third person, with deliberate clinical detachment to help the reader make an objective judgment and make the startling end more impactful.
The book gets the title from the push that Blythe supposedly saw Violet give to the stroller containing her baby brother, hurtling him to his death. Also, “the push” is symbolic of a mother’s effort to bring a child into the world, as also seen in the novel when Blythe is asked to push with all her might when she is in labor.
While tracing the plot, Audrain does not just limit herself to the story at hand. She broaches on the societal expectations of mothers, internalization of the standard of maternal perfection, impact of dysfunctional parental relationships, and how the presence of children can change the dynamics of a couple for the better or worse.
The woman’s voice being discounted is not new in literature. And given the subject matter of The Push, we are invariably reminded of The Bad Seed (1954) by William March and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver. But unlike both the earlier works where the worst suspicions are confirmed either at the outset or eventually, The Push skirts with the issue in an absorbing way – taking turns at magnifying, downplaying, and doubting all that is said. Nothing is known for certain till the very end. All in all, it is a gripping page-turner, which though disturbing at times, does not stop you from racing till the end.***