2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #2

THE MISTAKE
Author: Wendy James
Michael Joseph RRP $29.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The MistakeA provocative and compelling book, I read The Mistake on the recommendation of another positive review. It was a good reading choice; the book kept me involved with every page turned.

As a teenager, all Jodie Garrow wanted to do was make something of her life. When she falls pregnant, she decides to adopt out her baby illegally, telling no one of her pregnancy or decision. The last thing she expects is to be confronted with this decision 25 years later, when she has a new life and a new family.

With the police now investigating the adoption, Jodie has no choice but to tell her husband and family of her mistake. They take their chances and involve the media before the police do, a risky move that brings widespread condemnation, rather than sympathy. The media needs a scapegoat and Jodie is it. Suddenly everyone wants to know what happened to Jodie’s baby. And everyone has an opinion – even her family.

As I read this, I was struck by the similarities of Jodie’s case and the real-life story of Australian water polo player Keli Lane, who in 2010 was convicted of the 1996 murder of her newborn baby Tegan. Lane concealed this and other pregnancies; during initial investigation of Tegan’s whereabouts she stated that the baby was living in Perth, later saying that she handed her baby to its father in a hospital car park. Since reading the book, I’ve realised I’m not alone in making this comparison, but it seemed so obvious to me as I read. The book refers to the infamous Lindy Chamberlain and Kate McCann missing child cases, but the Lane case goes unmentioned – I’m going to take a guess that the Lane case was in court at the time this was written.

James brilliantly depicts the media’s role in shaping the public’s opinions as well as the public’s voyeuristic tendencies. As a journalist and former news editor, I have my own insight into how the media works, how a story is latched on to and what sells. James has this aspect spot on – her depiction is insightful and so well done that the reader’s own opinion will be challenged, possibly swayed, multiple times during the book. One minute the reader is on Jodie’s side as she deals with the ramifications of being a media scapegoat and the hostility of strangers, as well as the gradual shunning by so-called friends; the next, the reader is questioning whether they really know Jodie…and does the media have her number?

The characters in The Mistake are fallible and believable. As the perspectives move from the inner to the outer Jodie, there is the sense that the reader doesn’t really know the reserved, calm Jodie, that she is holding something back, a feeling which mirrors the questions raised by her immediate family. Who is Jodie really? Who is my mother, my wife? It’s hard to completely sympathise with her, but I think that is deliberate – it keeps the dramatic tension at a high level. Her outward facade mirrors that which was so widely condemned in Lindy Chamberlain. In the same way, it’s hard to see Angus, Jodie’s husband, in a completely sympathetic light – far from a duped husband, he is unfaithful and initially shallow, and while he is there for his wife, there is the feeling at times that he’s far more worried about the impact on himself and his own ambitions. That said, there is strong character development over the course of the novel and that adds to the power it has overall.

The concept of mistakes is a common thread throughout the novel – infidelities, one-night stands, risky behaviour, trusting the wrong people, lies of omission – they all feature to some extent. There is no single mistake and the twist at the end reveals that the mistake is not what it appears at first. I did not predict the ending, despite my thoughts being full of “what ifs” the whole way through. I was left shocked, with even more questions – and that’s really how it is with real-life cases like this. No one ever really knows the full story.

Exceptionally written, The Mistake is fast-paced, thought provoking and hard to stop thinking about long after the book has ended. I recommend it highly.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.


MY HUNDRED LOVERS
Author: Susan Johnson
Allen & Unwin RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

My Hundred LoversA woman, on the eve of her 50th birthday, reflects on one hundred moments from a lifetime’s sensual adventures. After the love, hatred and despair are done with, the great and trivial acts of her bodily life reveal an imperfect, yet whole self.

The front cover teaser promises a book about an erotic adventurer. It’s a bit misleading, because my feeling at the end of the book was that the woman, Deborah, was less an adventurer than someone who fell into experiences rather than chose them. That said, My Hundred Lovers certainly is about sensual adventures, both of the sexual and non-sexual variety. And some of the sexual ones are guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows!

Reading My Hundred Lovers was challenging and confronting on a number of levels. Some of the chapters certainly took me out of my comfort zone, while others were a poetic pleasure. At times I loved how Deborah expressed how things made her feel, how she described things that gave her pleasure – such as eating a gelato. At that moment, I wanted to eat a gelato … even though I was cold. These chapters were such a contrast to the more distant ones when she relates her sexual experiences. Those chapters left me cold. It was as if she could not connect emotion and sex in the same way she could fuse the sensuality of her non-sexual experiences.

Deborah is a complex, contradictory, and difficult to really know protagonist. I imagine that if I met her I would struggle to understand her. At times she shows an incredible amount of self-awareness – “she could never own it, in the same way she could never own existence…her existence was air” (p186-7). Her understanding of the small things, the grass, the roses, places, is so acute; at times she is so in tune, it’s mind-boggling. And then she distances herself from this awareness and looks at herself from the outside, like she can’t or won’t reconcile some of her experiences with who she wants to be. I wasn’t able to warm to Deborah because I found it hard to establish a “relationship” with her – there was always a distance or barrier blocking closeness. I knew a lot about her, but I didn’t know her. She stopped short of pulling me in – any moments of closeness were just as quickly shut down, reverting to clinical descriptions that that were at times off-putting in their directness.

Yet, while in many aspects the book is direct, it also wavers from almost clinical and detached prose to the more intimate in terms of sensory experiences. There are some beautiful passages about “grass”, “sunshine” that are almost deconstructive – these first experiences are pulled apart into feelings and senses: “she heard the shackled nature growing, trying to revert to what it wanted to be”. Author Susan Johnson’s love of language was for me the stand-out aspect of this book. The narrative was disjointed, veering from first person accounts to distancing monikers such as “the girl” and “Suspicious Wanderer”. Yet, while such a technique can be distracting (and would be if Deborah was talking to me in person), it fits with Deborah’s “all over the place” persona and her detachment/disconnection from emotion and hurt when needed.

While I was unable to connect with the protagonist in a way that would make me really love this book and want to read it again (and again), I really did enjoy the new reading experience it opened up through a bloggers’ read along. I also read with anticipation because Johnson’s love of language was so clear and I enjoyed the book best at that level. Startling, provocative and vivid, this is a book worth reading because it’ll make you think – about your relationships, about your coping mechanisms and about your favourite things (or lovers). Is it erotic? I’ll let you decide.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin as part of a bloggers’ read along in June 2012. The blog was hosted here and my posts also appear on my blog here.


MEANING OF GRACE, THE
Author: Deborah Forster
Vintage Books RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Meaning of GraceReading The Meaning of Grace, I was struck by the carefully chosen title and how well it encapsulated the essence of the novel. For grace is really at the heart of this book. There is Grace, the mother and hub of the family – who she is, according to herself and her three children, what her meaning is. And then there’s grace, as in acts of grace or loving someone even when they have nothing left to give of themselves, a concept that is explored more in the latter parts of the book. While this novel is about a mother’s love and sibling rivalry, it is also about the characters discovering that there are many ways to love.

The central character is Grace Fisher, a mother of three, who one day decides her depressed husband Ian is a sore disappointment and moves the family from Melbourne to a coastal village in Victoria. Ian’s subsequent death – later ruled suicide – leaves their children with a lifetime of questioning. Grace is too busy (emotionally and physically) to help the children understand and so they are left to find meaning on their own.

Despite all experiencing the same loss, the children react in vastly different ways. Edie, the oldest, bases her life on romantic ideals – what things should be, how her mother should be, how her marriage should be. She feels that she is never loved (or noticed) enough by her mother, always coming second to her beautiful, but manipulative, sister Juliet; Edie cannot understand why her mother seems to love her sister more, despite her sneaky and disloyal actions, when Edie tries so hard to do everything right. The third child, Ted, appears as a relatively minor character. He was a baby when Grace moved the family; even as an adult, he seems to have his head in the sand when it comes to emotional intelligence – he’s either blissfully unaware of the undercurrents in his family, or he buries them as soon as they arise.

Grace’s eventual cancer diagnosis proves the catalyst for her adult children confronting the questions that have shaped their lives. Why didn’t Grace notice that one of her daughters was being abused a family friend? Why is it that Edie can’t have her own children, but Juliet could so easily give up one of her own? Why did Juliet seduce Edie’s husband? Why didn’t their father want to live? There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, and Forster doesn’t try to give them. She doesn’t try to smooth things over and come up with pithy explanations for the family’s (and individuals’), faults. She doesn’t try to explain everything and make it all right. It just is. And that makes it all the more real. As the children reflect on their childhood and their mother, they realise that Grace might not have have been a perfect mother, but she is stilltheir mother. Which comes back to grace. What failings do they need to forgive in their mother, themselves and their siblings? Isn’t that going some way to the meaning of grace?

This book resonated with me on a number of levels – as a daughter and as a mother. It made me think about my children and how they have reacted to the same experiences; I thought about how I love my children – what I do to show them I love them and whether it’s enough. I thought about my own mother and what I know of her experiences and how this shaped her mothering. I had to read it in stages because at the time I was struggling to reach a teenage son; the feeling that “I can never give enough” was prominent. I could completely relate to Forster’s premise that all children want morefrom their mother (even if at that moment, my child wanted less physical proximity and I wasn’t sure what thatmore was).

The Meaning of Grace is a poignant and thoughtful book that should generate lively discussion in book clubs. Forster has a knack for delving deep into the psyche of families and I’m looking forward to reading more of her writing.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This book was courtesy of Random House.