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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Double Mother

Michel Bussi

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To purchase The Double Mother

Title: The Double Mother
Author: Michel Bussi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 477 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Double Mother - US
The Other Mother - UK
The Double Mother - Canada
Maman a tort - Canada
Maman a tort - France
Das verlorene Kind - Deutschland
La doppia madre - Italia
  • French title: Maman a tort
  • US title: The Double Mother
  • UK title: The Other Mother
  • Translated by Sam Taylor
  • Maman a tort was made into a TV mini-series in 2018

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Our Assessment:

B : clever (if not always entirely plausible) ideas supporting a solid thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 12/2/2019 .
The Times . 1/6/2021 Mark Sanderson

  From the Reviews:
  • "(B)rilliantly twisty (.....) Fans of Fred Vargas's bizarre yet logical plots and complicated leads will be eager to seek out more of Bussi's work." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Double Mother (published in the UK as The Other Mother ...) is set in and around Le Havre. It begins with a preview-chapter, set at the airport, precisely time-stamped -- "Friday 6 November 2015, 4:15 PM" --, a woman and child going through a checkpoint on the way to catch a flight, and then a switch of scene to (police not airplane ...) Captain Marianne Augresse and her team, desperately picking together pieces in an investigation where the clock is obviously running down fast. Here, dramatically:

     Marianne Augresse's eyes narrowed, focusing on the faded letters. And suddenly the truth exploded.
     In a single moment, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Even the most unlikely ones.
       Readers, however, then must wait some 450 pages until they too are let in on this truth and all the explanations .....
       Bussi has an easy excuse for the delay:
     Yes, if someone began the story at this point, they would think she was out of her mind. She certainly would have, when she was rational. Five days earlier.
       So ... re-wind. Because Bussi did start at this point .....
       Yes, it's the classic glimpse-of-the-dramatic-ending-tease approach to thriller-writing (which, unfortunately no one ever nipped in the bud and, now endemic to the genre, readers have to put up with again and again and yet again). Sure, it helps introduce some of the characters and many of the significant elements of the mystery at the heart of the novel -- and forces tension into the story, from the get-go; still, Bussi is certainly good enough a writer -- and thriller-plotter -- that he shouldn't have to fall back on this most tired (so, so tired) of over-used devices.
       So, yes, after this *exciting* opening chapter the story jumps back, to four days earlier, and then proceeds deliberately and chronologically from there -- a more drawn-out count-down leading then to the (presumably) much faster-paced airport, will-they-catch-the-plane/the-criminals count-down of the previewed finale.
       The not-yet four-year-old Malone already featured in the opening airport-scene, and he proves to be the central figure in the story. Malone is a sweet, smart little kid, but he does have a few quirks -- like how attached he is to his stuffed animal, Gouti (an agouti), or how terrified he is of the rain, or how he always seems to be cold. Most significantly, he insists his mother is not his real mother: he loves Maman-da -- Amanda Moulin -- well enough, but insists, emphatically and without wavering, that she is not his mother (and Papa-di, Dimitri, not his father). This comes to the attention of psychologist Vasily Dragonman -- and, in speaking to the child, Vasily becomes convinced the boy is telling the truth.
       A mutual friend gives Vasily Captain Marianne Augresse's number and he gets in touch with her. One might think that a psychologist's hunch, about a child who otherwise does not appear to be in any danger, would be several levels below a police captain's pay-grade, but Vasily is both persistent and sure of himself -- and Marianne is at least mostly willing to hear him out. She does, however, have other things on her plate: for almost ten months now, since January, she's been on the hunt for Timo Soler, one of four participants in a major armed robbery in nearby Deauville -- and there's been a recent sighting of him, one of the two who got away; the other two died in trying to get away. The large haul Timo and his accomplice got away with has also still not been found -- an embarrassing open case for the local police.
       Vasily observes that Malone has some pretty strong images and specific stories imprinted on him -- and readers become acquainted with some of these in the boy's nightly sessions with his Gouti, the key to their constantly being retold. As Vasily explains to Marianne: at that age, children do not have much of a long-term memory -- everything will fade with time, sooner rather than later -- but somehow some things that Malone recalls seem to be constantly getting reïnforced. If the stories don't quite make sense to the adults, they are too real and firm and constant to dismiss as childish imagination. So also his insistence that Maman-da is not his real mother
       Amanda Moulin is a very loving mother, and Malone is both well taken-care of and quite happy. The father-figure, Dimitri, is of the rougher and more impatient sort, but seems to be intent on upholding the family-picture; it is he who is particularly annoyed by the psychologist's meddling.
       Vasily is fascinated by Malone's very specific stories and memories -- and points out:
(I)f someone made so much effort to ensure Malone would remember these things then, naturally, it is in other people's interest that Malone should forget them.
       And, indeed, there is another countdown-clock of sorts running: just how long will Malone be able to cling to these memories ? Even Malone understands the importance of holding out as long as possible:
     I don't want them to go away, Maman-da ! I have to remember them always. Always.
       Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the two very different cases overlap. But even as readers suspect that Vasily may be onto something, the questions remain wide open: if Malone is not the Moulins' child, how could they have pulled that off ? And why ?
       Bussi's plotting is fairly ingenious -- if, in some parts, very implausible -- and it's a neat little web of explanation he then unfurls. So also then in the final unwinding of the strands he doesn't opt for the (bureaucratic-)by-the-book resolution but rather allows things to work themselves out (helped by Marianne's (in)action) in a more just way. (Bussi also can't help himself and offers a 'Six months later' final section of a few short chapters, just to reässure readers (of how) everything worked out.)
       The Double Mother is well-paced, propelled at a nice clip by the different storylines. The maternal focus is quite well integrated into the story: Amanda is a truly devoted mother (though not all aspects of this are entirely plausible, when all is said and done), while forty-something Marianne is getting desperate for a man and her own dwindling prospects of motherhood. The male police colleagues are a reasonably interesting bunch, their characters revealed more closely as the story progresses (though some of this is a bit awkward). There's also Marianne's close friend Angie, who is particularly deftly used by Bussi, right under the reader's nose. Meanwhile, however, the whole "www.want-to-kill.com" idea -- a website where people describe incidents that lead them to want to commit murder and users vote whether to convict or acquit the would-be perpetrators (i.e. whether they feel the crime would be justified) -- is mostly wasted and a (near constant) distraction.
       If ultimately not quite believable, The Double Mother is an otherwise solid and engaging read, its page-count going down easily and effortlessly, and with some genuine suspense. Bussi's thriller relies more on interesting explanations than actual surprises -- which is fine, and then makes the surprises that he does offer all the more effective. In sum, it makes for a perfectly fine thriller -- though one that's ultimately perhaps too intent on reaching a feel-good conclusion.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 August 2021

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The Double Mother: Reviews: Maman a tort - the TV mini-series: Michel Bussi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Bussi was born in 1969.

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© 2021 the complete review

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