By Willemijn Bertels
To many, the mafia is perceived as something mythical, a legend of Italy’s past. Books and movies such as The Godfather often portray romanticized images of bold men defending their family’s honour, theatrically murdering anyone standing in their way. A contrasting, but equally compelling picture is painted in Alex Perry’s narrative of The Good Mothers, the women inside the ’Ndrangheta, the world’s most powerful mafia. 
For the people in southern Italy, there is nothing mythical about the mafia. To this day, the ’Ndrangheta rules in Calabria, extorting, plundering, smuggling, murdering, and making profit. While the organisation is relatively unknown compared to the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, its wealth is immense, and its power almost unimaginable. What started in the nineteenth century in Southern Italy grew out to become an empire stretching from its birthplace to New York, London, Tokyo, São Paolo, Johannesburg, and beyond. The ’Ndrangheta is involved in worldwide drug smuggling, illegal arms trade, fraud, embezzlement, and laundering money – not just its own but that of many other criminal organisations as well. This flow of criminal money ensures ’Ndrangheta presence in every aspect of life, in buildings, restaurants, shops, construction companies, banks, stock markets, governments and political parties around the world.
The ’Ndrangheta is a family business. In fact, the entire organisation is structured around 141 families, which its members are born or married into. It is not hard to imagine that in Italy, where family is at the heart of culture, the ’Ndrangheta is ingrained in culture as well. What allowed the ’Ndrangheta to become so powerful, and remain a public secret at the same time, is arguably their most valuable weapon; omertà, as they call it, the powerful and violent code of silence enforced through loyalty to the family.
The Good Mothers tells the story of the women living inside this misogynist patriarchy. The women portrayed grew up in a world of abuse, intimidation, and oppression, only to be married off as teenagers and watch their children take their place into the same cycle. There is no escape, as the fathers, brothers and cousins will restore the family honour through murder, preferably in a symbolic and gruesome manner. And so, most women play their role and take part in their criminal family business. Just years ago, three brave mafia women stood up to their violent families, to protect their children and fight for a better life. In doing so, they risked everything, and lost everything, as their families made them pay the highest possible price. And yet, they made the ’Ndrangheta pay as well.
The Good Mothers makes for a captivating read. Perry provides the reader with extensive details about every aspect of the ’Ndrangheta life, from its history, structure, culture and revenues to the methods used for violent assassinations. What ties everything together are the true stories of real women, trying to be good mothers to their children. Each chapter is substantiated with references to official court documents, witness statements, police reports and interviews. And still, it reads like a novel. While the narratives are unvarnished, the emotions are sensible. With each page, Perry makes these women come to life until their fear and desperation are tangible, and the reader can do nothing but feel heartbreak for them.
What makes this book refreshing, is the female perspective on a world dominated by violent men. Instead of emphasizing boldness and honour, misogyny is uncovered in all its ugliness. The Good Mothers removes the myth from the mafia. For the women living inside the ’Ndrangheta, it is the reality in which they are trapped.
 Perry, Alex (2018). The good mothers: The true story of the women who took on the world’s most powerful mafia. London: William Collins.
© Marcus Calabresus, 2015. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.