Book Review – Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve finally got to the end of this one. After not sleeping well for a week or so, I managed to focus for long enough to complete this book. Admittedly, I had to buy the audiobook to do it but I really wanted to get to the end. This was the book that everyone picked for me on Instagram and I was really looking forward to it. The premise was so different and original. It’s a shame that I didn’t pick it up when I was a better reader.

Every culture approaches death differently. Some celebrate the life of their deceased, those who go into periods of mourning and some combine the two. The death of the Seltzer children’s mother leads to a very different kind of ceremony. They must gather together and eat her. The Seltzer family are Cannibal-Americans and, in keeping with tradition, they must eat their dead mother. Unfortunately, she’s spent the last few months fattening up and now weighs about 500lbs. Just one of the many reasons why it’s going to be tricky to get the family to agree.

Despite their long tradition, not all of the Seltzer children are proud of their culture and very few of them are relishing the idea of consuming their mother. Many have left their cannibal past behind them and are glad their mother is dead. Some have changed identity and religions in the intervening years. We are introduced to this world thanks to Seventh Seltzer. He now works in publishing and struggles to keep track of which nationality he is pretending to be. His brother Second has married a Jewish woman and keeps kosher. Ninth is now a vegan. A lot has changed since the family were last together.

Mother for Dinner is an absurd and very funny novel. Yes, it is a little grotesque but the dark humour is executed perfectly. At the same time, it offers a fantastic portrait of family life. It’s weird touching in parts and has some genuine depth to it. Also some ridiculous historical and pop culture references. Shalom Auslander repaints the figure of Henry Ford and outs Jack Nicholson and Ronald Reagan as members of the Can-Am community. It’s a weird but wonderful mix of bad taste and astute commentary. Though it is all done with a purpose.

Deep down, Auslander’s novel is a satirical look at identity politics. Identity is a big thing throughout the novel. Starting with the family themselves. They refer to their mother as Mudd and she has refused to name them. Instead, they are given a number. Mudd decided that she wanted to give birth to 12 sons who would carry on the cannibal legacy and help their people prosper. Instead, the majority of them do whatever they can to escape their heritage. They pretend to be from other backgrounds and claim to be part of different races so nobody finds out. However, this often causes further problems.

Seventh finally feels settled with his wife and young daughter. However, as soon as Mudd calls, Seventh is pulled back in. He suddenly feels the weight of his culture and the people who came before him. It instantly seems important to keep the traditions of his people alive. Though he claims to be against Mudd’s inherent bigotry, Seventh shows clear signs of following in his mother’s footsteps. It says a lot about nature vs nurture. About the weight of your family and shared history. About the desire to get as far away from it as possible despite its seemingly unbreakable pull.

Mother for Dinner is such a complex but enjoyable book. It discusses so many important and timely themes. Auslander’s satire is successful at shining a light on identity politics, religion and family tradition. It does everything right and takes you on quite the journey. I always expected to enjoy this one but it ended up being even better. A definite must-read.

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