Books

Review: ‘Mother Tongue,’ by Joyce Kornblatt

FICTION: A deathbed confession sends a woman on a search for the truth about her identity — and about the very nature of identity.

"Mother Tongue" by Joyce Kornblatt; Publerati (176 pages, $17.95)

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"Mother Tongue," by Joyce Kornblatt, gives "speculative fiction" a whole new meaning.

Nella Pine, in a letter discovered after her mother's death, has learned that she is not in fact Nella Pine, and that her mother is not really her mother. Nella, 45 years ago, was Naomi Gordon — for the three days before a nurse named Ruth Miller snatched her from the nursery at a hospital in Pittsburgh and flew with the kidnapped infant to Australia, where she settled in the seaside village of Narooma, adopted a new identity as Eve Gilbert, and fabricated a recently deceased father for the baby now known as Nella. Conveniently, neither Eve nor her make-believe dead husband had any family.

"And if her confession ... left me knowing less than before she admitted her deed," says Nella, "if questions rattled my sleep like spilled coins from a purloined purse, what could I do but investigate further?"

"This," she writes, "is my account of that investigation."

Her evidence, beyond the meager field of facts? "Memory's stuttering tongue, imagination's hieroglyphs. In my thickening file, a record of dreams detailed as fingerprints, omens complex as DNA, lies in which the truth rests furled like a snail in its decoy of armoring shell."

When she tells us, "In other words, I followed every lead," I suspect (or hope) this is supposed to be at least a little funny, as virtually every lead (see above) is inward. That is, Nella mostly has to make up her missing story. From the original names Ruth and Naomi, she forges a biblical bond, wonders how her fate might have been different if her name had been "Melissa, Susan, Caroline" — then asks, "Or is this line of conjecture my own invention?"

She goes to a psychic healer, first asserting, "I am not the kind of person who goes to psychic healers." In a scrap of biography in Eve's letter, she sees a motive: Eve's parents "had another child first, Chana, but they lost her as a baby ... As if I were Chana in another form, and Eve her mother whose first-born has been restored to her."

Mostly, though, she wonders and hypothesizes, and "perhaps" and "what if" get a strenuous workout, even as Nella tells us: "Some might call this document a fiction, and to you I say: Yes, if by fiction you mean the truth a fevered soul yields up out of its alchemical heat."

Meanwhile, she gives a brief account of her actual, lived life, much of it re-envisioned and newly understood through the thoroughly recalibrated lens of her recovered identity — with some of the narrative given over to the ghost of her own dead husband (also a stolen child!); her real sister, a scientist, who never lost faith in Naomi's likely return; and her real mother, her commentary conjured through the deep fog of Alzheimer's.

Naturally, in a story so necessarily improvised, the question Kornblatt is really exploring is philosophical, about the nature and fixity of identity. And about that, of course, one can only speculate.

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Ellen Akins is a writer and editor in Wisconsin. ellenmakins@gmail.com

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This story was originally published September 28, 2022 4:30 AM.

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