Smother Love


Paul’s mother refuses to let him go. She tries to hold him captive for as long as possible; when it comes time, she doesn’t enroll him in school. Cut off from the world, the two speak a private language—babytalk dialogues between “Loverboy” and “Miss My Darling.” Eventually, Paul learns about school from the neighborhood children and insists he be allowed to go. If she doesn’t let him out of the house, he’ll tell on her.

So begins the child’s fall into normalcy. Standing among a flock of women on the edge of the playground, Paul’s mother watches him play: “He looked like every other child. It was painful to see him look so ordinary.” The brutal playground life steals the boy from the paradise of childhood: “too hard they throw balls at one another or just miss or a ball smacks the surprised face of the drifting kid, or the ball intercepted and stolen off and then the chasing and the pouncing and the mad hard scrabble for the ball, and then the ball abandoned.”

Paul’s frantic, unfit mother is the voice of Loverboy, Victoria Redel’s remarkable first novel. (Redel previously published a book of short fiction and a volume of poetry.) The story begins in the present, in a hospital room, after the narrator has been mysteriously separated from her son. She’s drifting in and out of consciousness, trying to muster up the strength to escape the white room and “get my son back.” Not until the final pages of the novel do we learn why she’s in the hospital, or where her Loverboy has gone. Through short flashbacks—vignettes that read like drugged dreams—the story slowly fills out, the damage gradually reveals itself.

While Loverboy is a thin, cryptic novel, it’s also authoritative and vast—full of suspense, emotional urgency, and shimmering imagery. Well-drawn minor characters momentarily interrupt the mother-son isolation: a widower, Jacob, who’s looking for someone to rescue, and the narrator’s parents, Sybil and Marty—terrible, narcissistic lovebirds so wrapped up in each other they barely notice their daughter’s presence.

Sybil and Marty’s neglect sends their daughter over the edge: She grows into a woman who occasionally sleeps in ravines, who can’t talk to people, who seduces shady men in bars with the calculated goal of getting pregnant. The story she tells is a nightmare tale of mother-love strong enough to swallow a child whole.