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Sylvia Warren graduated from Oxford in biology, after diversions in precious metals, parasites, and archaeology. She now works for Blackwell’s as their University of Oxford Liaison.

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Sylvia Warren

The flowers in service station forecourts have all disappeared. Magazines are pouring out column inches on how to spoil your mother, from spa days to branded chocolates to free glasses of prosecco at mid-rate restaurants. So in celebration of Mothering Sunday, let us explore a small selection of books concerning the relationships between mothers and their families. With apologies to Tolstoy, all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. These novels will make your mother seem like a saint in comparison, and provide an antidote for the gushing sentimentality of the racks of cards on display in supermarkets. I’ve curated this list for hands-on awful mothers; neglect is one thing, but simmering resentment is quite another.


A Separation

Published this month, ‘A Separation’, the third novel by Japanese- American Katie Kitamura is a quiet, taut novel following an unnamed narrator who has been secretly separated from her husband, but the driving force in the novel is the mother-in-law, the strong-willed and capable Isabella. She orders her son’s wife to go and look for him after he goes missing in Greece, and to the narrator’s internal confusion, she agrees. Although most of the plot takes place in the narrator’s head, memories slowly being clarified in the burnt-out landscape, Isabella both draws out false confessions and ties the narrator permanently close to the wreckage of the marriage.

Horrible mother rating: 3/5

Emotionally manipulative, but occasionally sympathetic.


Hot Milk

Deborah Levy’s Man Booker shortlisted novel ‘Hot Milk’ is the feverish and fractured story of Sofia and her paralysed, wheelchair-bound mother Rose. Sofia has given up her doctorate to care for her mother in Spain, where she is undergoing a costly treatment from a doctor who may or may not be offering good advice. Sofia succumbs to phantom pains in sympathy, and suffers the cutting remarks in return that only a mother can give.

Horrible mother rating: 4/5

Emotionally and physically manipulative, a real all-rounder.



‘Marrow’, by Yan Lianke and translated by Carlos Rojas, is set in an isolated community in Henan, China. Fourth Wife You is the mother of three daughters, all ‘idiot and epileptic’, and a son who rapidly begins to show signs of the same hereditary disease. Wanting to marry, the daughters insist on ‘wholers’ – those who have no disability. The ghost of the father of her children visits Fourth Wife You regularly, and his body eventually provides the sole respite for the family, as the bones of a close loved one are said to be the only cure.

Horrible mother rating: 1/5

She gets one horrible point for forced cannibalism, but at least she does everything she can to help her children.


This barely scratches the surface of awful mothers in literature, dishonourable mentions can go from Medea (killing your children will not win you mother-of-the-year) to Mrs Bennet ( just stop interfering), but do remember to thank your mother for not being included here. After all, it is Mothering Sunday.

- Sylvia Warren