Wendy James’ 2012 novel ‘The Mistake’ was a slow burner for me. The first few chapters, setting up the mystery of prim and proper Stepford wife Jodie Garrow and her missing baby, seemed slightly clichéd to me and the writing, at first, rather perfunctory. But as the plot developed, not only was I interested in what indeed had happened to the baby the teenaged Jodie had given away for adoption, I also really began to care for the characters. This was due entirely to James’ insightful portrait of the Garrow family. I knew James had been reviewed well for her other novels, and she had won the Ned Kelly award for her debut novel, so I was interested enough to continue past the initial chapters. What impressed me most was the believable portrayal of Jodie: she was a teenager from the wrong side of town, clever and determined to claw her way out of her dismal upbringing. The story of her rise out of working class misery to her position as attractive, well-to-do mother in small town NSW (no doubt based on Armidale, where James’ bio says she resides), was realistically and sympathetically told.
As a 1970s child of a teenage mother, I reflected on my own mother’s experience, as James described the fear and resistance of the 19 year old Jodie after the birth of her daughter:
‘No. Please.’ Jodie’s voice is sharp with panic. ‘Don’t you understand? I don’t need to see her. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to touch her. I want her – I want her gone. Oh, God.’ She turns away, closes her suddenly stinging eyes. ‘Isn’t there someone who can make it all go away? This is like some sort of crazy nightmare.’ Then, like the child that she is: ‘I wish I was dead’.
Her child-like rationale, no doubt influenced as well by her lack of worldliness, meant that Jodie saw nothing troubling about the hospital matron’s suggestion that the child be ‘given’ to a couple who were having trouble adopting. The reader is immediately alarmed; the novel then moves back and forth in time adding details to the puzzle of the whereabouts of that child some twenty years later. The ultimate picture that we are given of Jodie is complex, sympathetic, and quite haunting. I thought the description of Jodie obsessively reading social media commentary of her alleged ‘crime’ particularly moving, and it did cause me to stop and think about the treatment of victims and alleged perpetrators in real life crimes.
Secondary storylines involve Jodie’s very nicely drawn teenage daughter, who became more and more nuanced as the novel developed:
‘Hannah feels irritation flare, unaccountably maddened by her mother’s meek obedience, her passivity. Why won’t she do the talking? If it’s her story, why not tell it herself, her own way?’
And Jodie’s lawyer husband Angus is given some insightful moments that balance out a more traditional portrayal of the philandering husband:
‘The truth is that Angus doesn’t know the full story either. And one part of him – the cool, disinterested lawyer side of him, the aspect that, as the years pass, as his work becomes almost a second skin, has begun to define him – that part of him doesn’t want to know the full story, is warning him to proceed with caution.’
I enjoyed this novel and was quite affected by the resolution of the story. I’ll be going back for more of James’ work, in particular her latest ‘The Lost Girls’ which piqued my interest after reading recent reviews.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014