Edan Lepucki’s Third Novel Makes the ‘Cult of Motherhood’ Literal

TIME’S MOUTH, by Edan Lepucki

In Edan Lepucki’s third novel, “Time’s Mouth,” a runaway named Sharon finds herself pregnant, alone and in semi-permanent possession of a sprawling Victorian in the woods outside Ben Lomond, Calif. By now she has changed her name to Ursa. She turns the house into a refuge for pregnant women who come to be called “the mamas.” She bans all males other than sons. She also forms a cult around her ability to go back in time, a practice referred to as “transporting” or “tunneling.” Magical stones and a mint tea ritual are involved.

“Something had called her to the past,” Lepucki writes. It is “a gift. Also: a curse. Not that Ursa knows that yet.” We’re told all this in the beginning, by an unnamed first-person narrator who claims responsibility for Ursa’s magic — “I’m not time, but I hold it.” This voice tells us about “those who can slip the membrane” and revisit their pasts — the moments longed for, avoided, repressed, forgotten or misunderstood.

Sometimes a reader resists a narrative the way a patient resists psychoanalysis. This resistance isn’t an impediment to understanding; it’s integral to the process. The very refusal yields insight. Reading “Time’s Mouth” brought this productive tension to mind as I grappled with, but never quite reconciled myself to, the time travel at the novel’s spooky core.

With “Time’s Mouth,” Lepucki returns to the themes probed in her previous novels, “California” (2014) and “Woman No. 17” (2017): the fraught consequences of having children and the entanglements of family. Her insistent focus on mothering — or not — as a node of feminine existence sneaks its way through her work, threading itself around her other concerns, with the fragility of the natural environment, the malleability of time, the abuse of power in closed communities.

There’s something claustrophobic about “Time’s Mouth,” and not just during the full moons, when Ursa locks the children inside the “purple room” while “transporting” (“encircled by the mamas” whose faces are “bisected with sage ash”). The novel feels limited to Ursa’s closed world as she revisits her arrival in California and the first time she met her son Ray’s long-gone father, and most of all as she revels in the texture of Ray’s childhood. Even as the novel moves beyond the compound into the wider world, this stifling magical force continues to press down on the characters and the reader’s experience of them.

We wait for the consequences. Time travel itself — even without Ursa’s direct interference in past events — risks altering the fabric of the so-called time-space continuum. The presence of a future self in one’s past may be costly. The question is, who will pay? We wonder as the novel unfolds, and as the narrator’s attention shifts to Ray and then to his daughter, Opal, and to Opal’s mother. Lepucki manages to obscure the actual risks of Ursa’s power while allowing the stink of its potential danger to seep through the pages.

Her prose, at its best, is tactile and immediate — a Pepsi is “so bubbly it was almost spicy” — and yet an overload of spiritual “energy,” described as “syrupy, fizzy, al dente,” combined with “candles, matches, sage, water jugs, barley tea,” bogs down the writing. Lepucki remains attuned to the deep yearning and loss associated with parenthood and childhood, although her characters never quite feel grounded, “time’s mouth” continually “sucking them back and back.”

By the time Ursa’s well-drawn and purposeful granddaughter Opal wrests control of the story, it’s late in the game. What’s come before is not so much a loss as a missed opportunity. And yet, for the reader, all that resistance to the conceit of time travel yields a residue, one sticky with sweat and the scent of mint tea.

Cree LeFavour’s most recent books are “Lights On, Rats Out,” a memoir, and “Private Means,” a novel.

TIME’S MOUTH | By Edan Lepucki | 407 pp. | Counterpoint | $28

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