Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2020

Mother Tongue (2020), by Joyce Kornblatt

In the lead-up to #NovellasInNovember*, Mother Tongue is definitely one that you should consider if you can get your hands on it.  It should be in shops from October 1st, but a quick hunt around online suggests that though all three of my libraries have it, (one of them in digital form), not all my regular bricks-and-mortar sources have got stocks just yet.  Well, things are a bit Covid-messy in Melbourne at the moment, do not be deterred, Mother Tongue is worth the hunt.

It’s an extraordinary book.  It was launched at Gleebooks where events manager Victoria Jeffreys is quoted as saying She wrote with such compassion and understanding that part of me wondered if some of it was a true story!’ That’s exactly what I thought…

The blurb suggests the existential questions raised by the novel…

What does it mean when the identity out of which one builds a life turns out to be a lie? What is the impact on one’s self and those one loves? Mother Tongue emerges from the fires of shocking loss, betrayal and grief-tested love.’

Mother Tongue is a profound and moving novel that asks complex questions with such crystal clarity they seem simple. Are we formed by our genes? Our history? Or do we make ourselves? How do we lose each other? More importantly: how do we find each other?

… but this blurb gives no hint of the shocking loss.

When we hear news about some monstrous crime committed against a child, we try to imagine what kind of person could do such a thing, and how the child might ever recover to live a normal life.  But imagination fails us.  It doesn’t seem possible to put ourselves in the place of the people in such a situation.  Yet Kornblatt has succeeded in doing so.  She has woven such a story, a feat of imagination that seems utterly real.

It’s not a spoiler to show you what that monstrous crime is, because here it is, on page one:

My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to you who reads it here for the first time.

I am the secret and the one who whispers the secret into your ear.

I am the crime and the narrator-sleuth.

I came upon the facts of my existence as one who returns to her home in the midst of a burglary: here is the shattered glass, the rifled drawers, the thief with the booty still cradled in her guilty arms.

When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own.  This was May 7, 1968, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (p.9)

Nella grows up in Sydney in complete ignorance of her real identity until she is middle-aged.  That is when this nurse, who had taken on a new identity as the widowed Eva Gilbert, dies and leaves a letter of explanation for Nella to find.

This is not one of those soppy genre novels about ‘family secrets’, it is about Nella’s journey of reconciling her love for the woman who brought her up, with the crime committed.  It’s about her struggle to restore her shattered identity.  It’s about her dilemma over whether or how to seek out her American family and her real heritage.

What is utterly surprising, and a stroke of unexpected genius, is the beautiful ending.

Highly recommended.

Author: Joyce Kornblatt
Title: Mother Tongue
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020
ISBN: 9780648523321, pbk., 185 pages
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available from Fishpond: Mother Tongue or your favourite indie bookshop.


  1. I do like the sound of this!


  2. A fine review. Joyce is a very fine writer and I have been looking forward to her book for some time.


  3. I just downloaded it from our library. Will have a look. I need somethjng short and interesting to hold my atgention until the big election in USA is over. Lol🤠🐧🍷🌷


    • Heavens, yes, don’t we all?! I am so tired of speculation masquerading as news. I’m sure that there is lots of real news happening but between C-19 and the election in the US, it feels like being back in the sixties when we didn’t know anything about The Rest of the World!


  4. Sounds a powerful novella. I’m sure it’s a plot device that’s been used before, but can’t at the moment think where. Brain not functioning as well as usual in these trying times. Maybe things will get better after the election you mention – but I fear they won’t …


  5. I expect it has too, in tawdry novels of the same type as Emma Donoghue’s Room. But Kornblatt as good as sets the plot device aside as a mere catalyst for the soul-searching that happens afterwards. It’s very powerful, especially if you’ve been a victim of crime and you’ve felt that powerful hatred for someone who has stolen your peace of mind and sense of safety, and then had that epiphany when you realise that hating them only makes it worse because then they’ve succeeded in changing you from what you were into a different kind of person that you don’t like very much.


  6. […] Benevolence (2020) by Julie Janson […]


  7. I missed seeing this last year I think. But adding it to my [new] novella page :-)
    Also discovered that Kornblatt is now living in Blackheath, where we have our holiday house and where we are sitting out this torrential flood event going through the east coast of NSW this weekend.


    • Oh gosh, I hope everything is all right for you.
      Perhaps you can keep an eye out for Kornblatt and if you see her to have a quick word, please tell her that Lisa sends regards!

      Liked by 1 person

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