Author: Dawn Barker
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
This is what he imagined it would be like; the three of them, happy and content. At that moment, he knew that everything was going to be fine.
Nothing can ever prepare you for the reality of having a child. You can take pre-birth classes, write birth plans, read countless self-help books and talk to those with experience. You can think of your own childhood, your own parents, or you can watch other parents with judgmental or curious eyes, and make decisions about what you will and won’t do as a parent. It still isn’t enough. You have to experience it for yourself. In Fractured, debut novelist Dawn Barker considers the impact of parenthood on a young mother and the excruciating flow-on effect this has on her child, husband and extended family. As a first-time novel, it’s outstanding; Fractured is a searing, unforgettable portrait of a fractured mind and family torn to pieces.
Tony is at work when he receives a phone call from his mother saying his wife, Anna, and six-week-old son are missing. He’s immediately worried because he has sensed for a while that Anna is not coping with baby Jack. Since coming home from hospital her moods have fluctuated – she’s irritable one minute, crying the next, and her moments of happiness have a ring of falseness about them. Tony wants to believe she’s just adjusting to sleepless nights, the difficulties of breastfeeding, and her need to try to stay on top of everything. Deep down, though, he senses there’s more to it. His gut feeling turns into a nightmare when Anna is found on the edge of a seaside cliff. Without Jack.
When Anna is found, she is taken to the hospital where she lies unresponsive, curled in a foetal position, whispering to herself. She can’t, or won’t, tell anyone where Jack is. Physically, she’s OK, apart from some cuts and bruises; mentally, the doctors suspect she’s far from OK. And then Tony gets the phone call no parent ever wants to receive. I knew it was coming. But still, my breath caught when Tony reveals to his anxious mother the devastating news that his beloved son has been found dead. He so much wants to believe that Anna isn’t responsible … but what if she is? What then?
He turned the radio on, found a station playing some pop song, turned up the volume, and pretended it was the most normal thing in the world to drive away from a police station after your wife had been implicated in murdering your child.
There was nothing normal about his life anymore.
In Fractured Barker explores the topic of mental illness, and more specifically, postpartum psychosis, with candour and compassion. The story is told from multiple perspectives and moves back and forth between time. As the characters deal with the horror of the present, the story is given context and hindsight – the reader sees how Jack’s birth impacts on Anna, how her sense of failure right from the beginning leads to imperceptible cracks in her mind. It’s an effective device because it allows the reader to take in a wider view of the situation, to allow retrospective events to have a say in assessing the situation. It’s a difficult, highly emotive topic, one that many readers will find confronting, but it’s oh so sensitively approached, free of judgment in relation to the characters and the system. It’s a brave choice of topic for a first novel, but in this case, Barker nailed it. I particularly liked how the legal system’s involvement was downplayed and the media’s expected involvement (we all know how the media would run with this) was not even acknowledged. Instead, the focus remained squarely on the implications of this illness on the family.
The characters brought out a range of emotions in me as I read. Tony, oh I felt for Tony. To have everything taken from him just like that, to have to reluctantly accept the unthinkable about his wife, to have to admit that the signs were there all along … I empathised with him so much. I completely understood his impotent anger, his helplessness and the confusing rollercoaster of emotions that pulled him every which way. And at the same time, I understood, even if I didn’t like it, how Ursula shifted from being a supportive mother-in-law to an intrusive mother lioness. For underlying the mental illness and the tragedy is a separate study of what it means to be a mother and the protectiveness this role usually entails. This was clear in all the mothering relationships in the novel – Ursula wants to protect Tony, Wendy (Anna’s mother) wants to protect Anna, and Anna, in her fragile and disconnected state, thinks she is protecting her son from herself.
When it comes to Anna as a character, of course, I was initially horrified by what had happened. Who wouldn’t be? But, I also empathised with her, knowing that this extreme form of mental illness had broken something in her mind, leading to consequences that will haunt her forever. Something broke in Anna’s mind when she gave birth. She put so much expectation onto her birth plan, believing her careful and thoughtful plan would show how much she values her son. His entrance into the world is meant to be full of love and wonder … and instead, all that is taken away from her, with an emergency Cesarean, an induced birth, drips, implements and more. I can relate to some of that. I can also relate to that sense of failure – my birth plans went out the window faster than they were written. But the ramifications were much more complex for Anna. The insight Barker gave me, as a mother who did not experience postnatal depression, was invaluable.
Fractured is a complex, brave and compassionate novel that left me saddened and thoughtful for a long time after I’d finished. I also felt grateful that my experience was different and based on that, I hope that the next time I meet someone experiencing post-natal depression that I’m more aware, understanding and supportive. With her sensitive, and at times, breathtakingly astute writing, Barker has shown her hand as a writer to watch and she’s come up trumps. Dawn will be my guest at an upcoming Stories on Stage event and I can’t wait to meet her; I have a feeling this is not the last time we’ll be hearing of her, either.
Fractured is available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. This copy was courtesy of Hachette.
Bookish treat: Difficult choice … thin shards of toffee sprinkled with sea salt.