Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg (Tor, May 13th, 2014/Reviewed by Michael Parker)-Natalie is a twenty four year old single mum living in a trailer park in Charlotte next door to her mum Jess. She works nights in the local Waffle House franchise run by Benny. Jess looks after her baby Eddie whilst she works, having renewed her dedication to her daughter after her husband died fifteen years ago. Benny has carried a flame for Jess for a long time and Natalie is always encouraging her mum to go a date with him but she always declines.
Natalie and Sophie are best friends, having grown up together and it’s been that way for as long as they can remember. They even had their children at roughly the same time, and they have that almost telepathic relationship that only best friends can have. With a bit of coaxing from Jess, the pair has agreed to have a rare night out together in a bar where they can let their hair down. Neither, though, is prepared for what happens next. The act on stage that night is a legendary blues singer called The Whistler, something of a mystery, who eschews record deals and scheduled tours in favour of turning up unannounced to play. His shows are reported to be the best anyone has experienced and Natalie has been desperate to see him for ages.
The pair wake up the following morning, half dressed, in Sophie’s car with little memory of what happened the night before except an uncomfortable awareness that the three of them have slept together. Rather freaked out by this-it was not something the girls had ever done before-they try to act as if nothing had ever happened. However, it is soon clear to both that something is not right. At work the next night, Natalie’s senses are especially acute, and all the customers seem entranced by her. The same thing has happened to Sophie, and when she shows up at the Diner, a married man practically falls over himself in front of his wife and kids trying to kiss her. Then the Whistler shows up…….
What is said between him and Natalie is never made explicit, but it is enough to make the girls quit their jobs, leave their babies with Jess, and make her promise to take the babies, sell up, and never let Natalie know where they have gone. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say at this point that the Whistler is a vampire. In Hirshberg’s world vampires can last months between feeds, but the hunger steadily rises until it can’t be denied. Vampires can’t choose who they turn-to some extent it is beyond their control-and there has to be some kind of connection between the couple. The Whistler had taken one look at Natalie, and something in her bearing, her poise and strength, convinced him she was his destiny. For the whistler that means two things; getting Natalie to feast on another human being – only then will she fully turn, and killing the vampire who he calls Mother, who had sired him.
The most important thing for Natalie and Sophie is ensuring their kids are somewhere safe, and that means hidden from them, whilst they work out what to do. I defy anyone not to be moved as the girls try on one hand to deny their new found nature to feed, whilst at the same time fighting every maternal instinct they have to go back and look for their children. Increasingly frustrated at Natalie not feeding, the Whistler tries to speed events along knowing that if he can make Natalie shed her last vestige of humanity, she will be his. The threat is made clear, either feed or he will kill their babies. What follows is a life or death race to reach Jess and the babies but who will get there first? Will it be Natalie and Sophie, or the Whistler, or Mother who has her own selfish Plan?
What a great book! Hirshberg is a confident enough in his writing to allow things to build slowly and show us the relationships between Natalie and Jess, Natalie and Sophie, and even the Whistler and Mother. It’s so important because, although this is a thriller, and horror with some genuinely unsettling moments – the scene in the lake where Sophie swims with alligators being just one example – at its heart, Motherless Child is a love story; indeed, a profound and moving story about a mother’s love and the sacrifice she will make for her child. The ending of this book backs that up in a way which manages to be both surprising and inevitable, both heart-breaking and, surprisingly, heart-warming. Unreservedly recommended.