Book Review

Lili Gourley

Kristen Gentry’s Mama Said: A Review

Kristen Gentry’s debut, Mama Said, is a collection of twelve short stories that offers an intimate look into the lives of young women. More specifically, the stories examine family relationships made complicated by substance abuse and depression. Having recently lost someone to alcohol addiction, a topic often overlooked or glossed over, this book struck an intense chord. With addiction, we often feel as though we’ve lost someone before they’re truly gone, and this kind of loss is demonstrated eloquently throughout Mama Said. The cover alone is a marker of what one can expect: an evocative painting called “The Illusion of Peace” by Ton’nea Green, a Louisville artist. It features a young girl with her eyes closed and arms raised gently as if dancing, a beaded bracelet on her wrist that says “MAMA.” Her cheeks glow and she wears a purple striped bow in her hair. There is a sweetness and a sadness in that image, something that Gentry, who visited campus in April, says she was struck by, as she felt it accurately and beautifully portrayed the complexity of children.

Mama Said is set in Louisville, Kentucky. While the stories are set during the crack epidemic and opioid crisis, there is a timeless quality to them. They explore motherhood, masculinity, and the Black family experience, all issues that remain salient. Hailing from Louisville herself, Gentry paints this composition with understanding and care, drawing in the reader with descriptions of the Ohio River and local Derby Day celebrations. The collection moves from the main character JayLynn to include her cousins Zaria and Angel, and their mothers.

The opening story, “Mama Said,” is compelling, not only in its clear description of setting, but more interestingly, in the utilization of the second person perspective. Within the first few sentences, the audience is in the place of JayLynn as she moves into her college dorm. Second person point of view is risky, but here the payoff is powerful. I found myself very connected to JayLynn, and not just because I was addressed as her. The toll of carrying a parent’s mental and emotional baggage is cumbersome and Gentry’s matter-of-fact style of writing cements us firmly in that place. “Zaria understands your situation because she has her own situation with her mother Dee and Dee’s crack addiction” Jaylyn observes, and this comment shocks with its direct and honest nature. In a time of change in JayLynn’s life, she is still hyper-conscious of her mother’s wellbeing rather than her own. While strangers help JayLynn move her belongings into the dorm, her mother Claudia sits in the car with the air conditioning blasting, listening to James Taylor.

These moments are the ones that stick to JayLynn, and show up in different manifestations throughout the book, like being unable to reach her mother on Thanksgiving day and having to be the buffer for her family’s frustrations while dealing with her own feelings in “A Satisfying Meal.” In terms of language, there is a striking balance between the blunt and the poetic. When JayLynn, leaving for college, watches her mother break down and cry, she’s torn between “want[ing] her to feel the disappointment [Jaylyn] felt when her mother didn’t show up or buried herself under the covers,” and still wanting her mother’s attention, “a love letter you’ve desperately wanted to read all your life…”

Claudia’s struggle leads us to “Introduction,” the shortest story at only five pages, something that Gentry says surprised her as she wrote it. Nonetheless, the story carries the same emotional intensity and depth of the longer pieces. Once again following JayLynn, Gentry switches to first person narration. The emotional maturity forced onto JayLynn from a young age is evident here. As a 20-year-old, she watches as her mother prepares for an AA meeting, rubbing lotion into her legs. As she watches Claudia, she thinks of how her mother’s body houses her insecurities, her choices. She wonders about the cosmetic surgeries she’s had, and why she’s unable to “see her perfect parts.” Jaylyn shares the bathroom with her, putting on makeup that she doesn’t usually wear because “I just wanted to be around her, to soak her up like sun.” Claudia’s invitation to the meeting is a big deal for the both of them, and later at the meeting, Jaylyn can’t help but think of that moment in the bathroom. She’s afraid to tell her mother that she’s beautiful, knowing Claudia won’t or maybe can’t believe her. As a reader, I was enamored with the way Gentry creates characters we can empathize with, characters at once deeply flawed and worthy of love. When asked about the quick yet resonant ending, Gentry said, “thinking about and claiming an addict as a mother is enough of an event” for our main character. “Introduction” is among my favorite stories in the collection for its brevity and its powerful ending.

While the collection examines mother-daughter relationships, Gentry also subtly and artfully examines masculinity and its impacts on the women characters. Only three of the twelve stories are told from a male perspective. We meet Parker, Claudia’s ex-husband and Jaylyn’s father in “A New World,” Waylon in “A Good Education,” and Damon in “To Have And To Hold.” In “Origin Story,” Zaria’s boyfriend comes over to help get rid of a bat from her new home. Again, utilizing different points of view, Gentry reveals the way relationships shape our sense of self. While Parker contemplates the things he should’ve, could’ve, would’ve done in his relationship with Claudia, we wonder if he might have been able to make a difference if he had “flush[ed] Claudia’s pain pills down the toilet, [gotten] in her face and yell[ed].” The likely answer is no. When Zaria watches her son absorb what it means to be a man, she is forced to recognize the limits of her ability to protect her son. The reader is left wondering how Malik will cope. Certainly the male characters are affected by the mothers’ addictions, too, but Gentry’s focus is always the daughters. “I wanted it to be about the daughters,” she said, “not about the mothers [or fathers].”

The final story, “Everything You Could Ever Want” mirrors the opening story in a fulfilling and satisfying way. Also written in second person, we see how JayLynn has internalized the role of the good daughter, even in the most difficult moments in her life. When she miscarries, she thinks, “…you feel like your girl is so like you–uneasy and unsure how to insert herself into the world. So timid that she didn’t try, didn’t want to be a bother.” These devastating lines reveal the damage that ripples through the generations. Gentry makes space to grieve with JayLynn, Zaria, Claudia, and countless others. Alongside this, there are moments of connection, too, and Gentry ends the collection with one such moment. In the end, Claudia does show up for JayLynn and wisely tells her “Of course you’re not okay. But you will be… You’re gonna be okay.”