Time travel narratives are so ubiquitous in our culture that we all must have, at some point, considered what it would be like to go back in time. Not just to remember, but to actually go back—to observe our parents when they were young, to take fresh note of textures and colors and shapes and situations and emotions we didn’t notice or understand when we were children. In Edan Lepucki’s novel Time’s Mouth, a grandmother and granddaughter share this ability, which is as much an affliction as it is a blessing.
Born in 1938, Sharon begins to “transport” when she’s a teenager, shortly after the death of her despised, abusive father. She leaves home, takes on the name Ursa and moves into a creaky mansion hidden away in a redwood forest. There she comes to govern a weird hippie commune populated by broken women, each given the honorific of “mama,” and their children.
The children’s lives swing between a sort of indentured servitude and a not-so-benign neglect. With the exception of Ursa’s son, Ray, none of the children are allowed to go to school or see a doctor, lest their existence be discovered. But Ray’s privilege is Ursa’s mistake. His knowledge of the outside world lets him see how twisted this village of mamas is. He and his secret girlfriend, Cherry, escape, but Cherry leaves him when their daughter, Opal, is just a baby. Inevitably, Opal, who inherits her grandmother’s fantastic gift, wants to know why.
This gift is tangled up with each woman’s experiences of motherhood and daughterhood, going back generations. Ursa leaves behind her own mother who refused to protect her, then later transports to reclaim Ray, and Opal uses her powers to learn more about her own absent mother. But even mothers who are present aren’t necessarily good enough, as is seen in the commune’s derelict mamas.
Ursa is Latin for “bear,” and mama bears are famous for being fiercely protective of their cubs. But Lepucki’s Ursa is more fierce than protective. She is, to be blunt, a psychopath. She has no use for the nonservile; her love is conditional, if not transactional; and if she’s thwarted, she reacts with mind-bending violence.
The bestselling author of Woman No. 17 and California, Lepucki displays a real talent for giving readers a new perspective—whether on the passions of motherhood in particular, or on the nature of parenthood in general—and emphasizes the power of real love (and a bit of New Agey therapy) to heal.