There’s more than one side to this story of a mother accused of murdering her child.
It’s impossible to read Wendy James’s fourth novel and not think of the real-life case of Keli Lane, jailed for the murder of her baby Tegan, whose body has never been found. In sentencing her, the judge said Keli Lane ‘tore asunder the natural relationship between mother and daughter’.
Lane always maintained that Tegan was adopted by her natural father, a man she confusingly named as Morris or Norris. But there was no record of the adoption, and Lane’s inability to produce the father, or Tegan, raised suspicions that could not be quieted.
A secret adoption is at the heart of The Mistake. Jodie Evans is 19, alone, and very unwilling to have her baby, the product of a one-night stand. It is 1986, a time when single-motherhood has lost some of its stigma, but a baby is not what Jodie wants. So when the helpful matron at the hospital where she has given birth offers to arrange an adoption ‘privately’, it seems the perfect answer. All she wants is:
…to be virtually invisible; the baby [to] be born then instantly whisked away, taken for good and with no questions asked.
What Jodie does not count on is that 24 years later she will, due to her daughter breaking her leg during a school excursion, visit the hospital again and encounter the midwife who was there at the time she gave birth.
Jodie recognises her immediately. She is oddly unchanged after more than twenty years – the slanted blue eyes still sparkling, the friendly smile that makes her look so cheerful, so approachable. ‘Hello Debbie.’ She is surprised by how casual, how calm, her greeting sounds, amazed that she has even managed to speak at all. Her breath is shallow, blood pounding; she feels weak at the knees.
Debbie is persistently inquisitive about Jodie’s baby, who was the then-young midwife’s ‘first birth’. Jodie’s vague answers about the adoption arouse Debbie’s curiosity and before long she is going through the hospital’s old records to discover what happened to the child, whom Jodie had named Elsa Mary.
Slender, blonde and self-contained, Jodie has worked hard to reinvent herself after a childhood of neglect and poverty. At the time she re-encounters Debbie, Jodie is a respectable wife and mother in the country town of Arden (a university town not a million miles away from the author’s own home town of Armidale). She has a surly teenage daughter, Hannah, and an ebullient son, Tom. Her husband, Angus – her teenage sweetheart, whom she has married in defiance of his establishment family – is a successful lawyer about to make a run for mayor. For Jodie:
… her family was her core, her centre. This was all she wanted – and all she had ever wanted. All she would ever need.
None of them is aware that Jodie had had a child before her marriage. When, after seeing Debbie again, she confesses to Angus, he is insistent that this changes nothing about their marriage or his feelings for her, and expresses little interest in the details. Nevertheless, he suddenly begins having panic attacks.
Then Jodie receives a letter from Debbie:
‘…it appears there is no official record of an adoption being processed for your daughter Elsa Mary. Further inquiries also indicate that the birth was not registered. As it is clearly my legal duty to report such findings, I have made these discoveries known to the relevant authorities, including the police.’
James tips us subtly from the idyllic ‘before’ of Jodie’s present into the helter skelter chaos of after. The shift comes gradually, coolly, as Jodie’s – and the reader’s – awareness grows that this is not a simply a mystery about what happened to the child, but a possible murder case.
Being from a well-to-do family and with a lawyer for a husband, Jodie has more resources than most to face what is to come. Angus engages a legal friend to manage the situation, placing ads in newspapers and magazines around the country for Elsa Mary to come forward, and getting on the front foot with the media before any possible police investigation can begin. But neither of these measures, nor the family’s position in the town, is going to be enough to deflect the gathering storm – unless Elsa Mary can be found.
It’s trite but true to say that the image of a child-murdering mother plays to our deepest fears. If this source of nurturing and trust can betray us, what hope have we? Cases such as Lindy Chamberlain’s (prior to her eventual acquittal) and Keli Lane’s capture the public imagination, exacerbated by the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the missing child, and inflamed by the media when the mothers do not display what is considered the appropriate ‘motherly’ emotional responses. (Interesting to note how these two traits are often conflated – to be a good mother you have to lack self-control, apparently.)
The ordinariness, verging on blandness, of the life Jodie has created for herself makes her difficult to like, though the narrative switches briskly back into the past often enough to give us glimpses of a strength and inner complexity. Yet, when the inevitable saturation media coverage comes, it is her ordinariness that comes under attack: how dare she look like ‘just-one-of-us’?
Wendy James takes the media clichés and turns them around, showing what it might be like for a mother accused of murdering her child – and for her family. The ostracism, the accusations, the intrusions, living with the knowledge that most of the town has already tried and condemned you, and that your situation is directly affecting your children. James shows how the ripples spread through the family, leaving none of them unscarred.
The novel builds from its measured opening into a genuine page-turner. And James provides a twist which is satisfyingly surprising if not, on reflection, totally convincing.
Nevertheless, within its suspenseful narrative, The Mistake has important things to say about how we think about motherhood, how the media views women, and how, when it comes to ‘the natural relationship between mother and daughter’, few can be neutral.
Wendy James The Mistake, Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2012, PB, 288pp, $29.95
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