The Barter is a ghost story and a love story, a riveting emotional tale that also explores motherhood and work and feminism. Set in Texas, in present day, and at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel follows two young mothers at the turning point of their lives.
Bridget has given up her career as an attorney to raise her daughter, joining a cadre of stay-at-home mothers seeking fulfillment in a quiet suburb. But for Bridget, some crucial part of the exchange is absent: Something she loves and needs. And now a terrifying presence has entered her home; only nobody but Bridget can feel it.
On a farm in 1902, a young city bride takes a farmer husband. The marriage bed will become both crucible and anvil as Rebecca first allows, then negates, the powerful erotic connection between them. She turns her back on John to give all her love to their child. Much will occur in this cold house, none of it good.
As Siobhan Adcock crosscuts these stories with mounting tension, each woman arrives at a terrible ordeal of her own making, tinged with love and fear and dread. What will they sacrifice to save their families—and themselves? Readers will slow down to enjoy the gorgeous language, then speed up to see what happens next in a plot that thrums with the weight of decision—and its explosive consequences.
“Eerie and atmospheric, this psychological thriller will twist its way into readers’ psyches.” - Booklist
“Suspenseful debut.” – Publishers Weekly
“The Barter is a delightful and utterly unique portrait of parenthood across the ages. Siobhan Adcock manages to express what is inexpressible about motherhood and marriage, deftly capturing the banal and the divine, the give and the take. As funny, profound, otherworldly, and terrifying as love itself, this is a debut novel not to be missed.” –Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far is the Ocean From Here
“Absolutely outstanding. The Barter is a ghost story haunted by love, a love story haunted by ghosts, and a literary mystery propelled by the unsaid secrets of marriage and motherhood. In Adcock’s world, you won’t know whether it’s fear, love, or outright beauty making your heart beat like a drum. You won’t know, and you won’t care at all. You’ll just have to keep reading.”
–Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River and The Cradle
“Siobhan Adcock takes a very contemporary question – can women ever really “have it all” or are trade-offs invariably exacted? – and examines it through the startling prism of a ghost story. Part comedy of manners, part historical fiction, and part genuinely creepy page-turner, The Barter casts a lively eye on the sacrifices, willing and involuntary, women make as they endeavor to weave together the heart’s various desires.” –Leah Hager Cohen, author of No Book But the World
“Siobhan Adcock’s impressive debut is a spellbinding blend of historical fiction and ghost story, made all the more believable—and harrowing—by its realistic depiction of the tenuous balance between fulfillment and sacrifice within a marriage.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
My first novel, The Barter, frames the question of whether women can “have it all” within a ghost story, and a love story. I wanted to tell you—and any other potential readers out there—why I wanted to write a novel that attempts such a crazy thing.
The story weaves together two time periods, beginning in the present day with Bridget, a former attorney turned stay at home mom. One night as Bridget is sitting up late with her baby daughter, a ghost appears in Bridget’s house—one that Bridget and her daughter can see, but that her husband can’t. As the novel progresses, this ghostly presence changes and becomes more and more threatening, until it ultimately threatens to engulf Bridget’s family, her sense of self, even her sanity. But even as all this is happening, Bridget has no choice but to keep living her life and taking care of her daughter, and keeping up appearances in the Texas suburb where she lives.
The other storyline, which starts in 1902, is also set in Texas, within the German immigrant culture that settled in the Hill Country around Austin. In this community, a young woman named Rebecca marries her childhood friend, John, more or less because she knows she’s expected to. They have a child, and Rebecca finds meaning and purpose in her work on their family farm, but she still can’t bring herself to be a “good wife,” whatever that means. The story of Rebecca and John trying and failing and trying again to make their way back to each other is dotted with bits of folktale and family history that ultimately guide Rebecca to her fate.
The Barter is really about two women characters who, in very different times and situations, are facing an identity struggle that I think is familiar to a lot of women, mothers in particular—and it’s a conflict that hasn’t changed much in the hundred or so years between Bridget and Rebecca.
I’ve worked in publishing as both an editor and a digital community moderator for a while now, mostly at sites whose main audiences were women. One thing I can say I’ve learned from my years of moderating community blowup after blowup in what’s often called the “mommy wars” is that the first accusation we women seem to like to level at each other is selfishness. You’re selfish if you have one child, you’re selfish if you have five. You’re selfish if you go back to work and put your child into daycare, and you’re selfish if you keep your little one at home with you instead of putting them into preschool. You’re selfish if you don’t put your kid into the baby aquatics class. You’re selfish if they don’t learn Mandarin.
Why is selfishness such a potent accusation for women? Based on what I’ve seen and read in this ongoing dialogue about what women should do or want to be, I can tell you what I think, at least. Women have made up a large (and still growing) percentage of the workforce for a couple of decades now, but I think many of us still wake up every morning with a crystal-clear understanding of just how hard it is to succeed on our own terms. Any inner or external resource that we can possibly muster that might help our kids, we feel a tremendous obligation to give them. And any resource we hold onto for our own success is therefore defined as something that we’re not giving up for our kids—it’s like this zero-sum game where we’ve got to give everything we have to help our little ones, or else we’re holding something back. But of course it’s not a zero-sum game—women have to succeed in order to succeed. And you can define success however you want to—working, not working, preschool, home school, baby aquatics. There’s obviously no one path that’s right for all women, but the anxiety of choice is real, and the regrets we all have are real too.
What The Barter is about is how very dangerous it is for women to define success as sacrifice. Antique as it is, the notion of “motherhood = sacrifice” is surprisingly durable—and for today’s mothers, it’s accelerated to the point where it’s like a contest to see who can sacrifice the most (the infamous Time magazine cover: “Are you mom enough?”).If our kids look at us and see women who have sacrificed and sacrificed and held onto nothing for our own success, what they see is not “success.” What they see is: “Give stuff up.” That message has potentially tragic consequences not just for us but for our children, and for our sisters and friends and all the other women who come after us. The Barter grapples with the fact that this is a lesson that’s been hundreds of years in the learning.
Thank you so much for taking a look, and I’m excited to talk with readers about the book.