#36 / Wendy James, The Mistake

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin / Michael Joseph ebook, 2012). An outstanding portrait of a family in crisis and the repercussions of past mistakes  4.5 stars

Opening line: If, before all this happened, before her – before their – unravelling, she had been asked how her life was, she’d have said that life was good.

The Mistake is Australian author Wendy James’ fourth novel. Like her first, Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for ‘Best First Crime Novel’ and was shortlisted for the Dobbie women’s writing award, it’s a hybrid narrative aimed at a diverse reading audience (doesn’t that cover remind you of something by Jodi Picoult?). While not a conventional crime novel, it raises profound questions about legal and moral boundaries, and the media’s role in pre-judging those it deems to be guilty of transgressing social and cultural norms.

Jodie Garrow is a middle-class wife and mother living in the affluent New South Wales town of Arding. She has the requisite lawyer husband, two children and a dog, and is a respected figure in the local community. However, when daughter Hannah breaks a leg on a school trip to Sydney, Jodie’s carefully ordered existence begins to fall apart. The hospital Hannah is taken to is the same one where Jodie secretly gave birth to a daughter many years before, and when a nurse from that time recognises her, a damaging piece of information comes to light: there is no record of baby Elsa Mary having been given up for adoption as Jodie claims. In the absence of legal proof, the baby may have to be classified as a ‘missing person’ by the police, with suspicion of foul play falling on Jodie as the last documented person to see her alive.

While the question of what happened to the baby looms large, the exploration of the fallout from Jodie’s ‘mistake’ (whatever that turns out to be) is central to this rich, multi-layered narrative. The novel can be read simultaneously as a portrait of a complicated woman, of a family in crisis, of a possible crime, and of the vilification of ‘bad mothers’ by the press. The ‘bad mother’, in this context, is a woman who fails to show the requisite ‘maternal’ qualities or emotion to convince the public that she is innocent of wrong-doing (as in, to a greater or lesser degree, the examples of Lindy Chamberlain, Sally Clark and Kate McCann). We are shown in brilliantly-drawn detail the destruction of an individual’s reputation, and the social consequences for the entire family of the doubts raised about Elsa Mary’s fate.

What stood out for me in particular was the novel’s excellent characterisation, which allows a nuanced picture of Jodie’s identity and her relationships with others to emerge. There’s also a superb analysis of how Jodie is shaped by class, which helps to illuminate her response to her unplanned pregnancy at the age of nineteen. Fittingly for a novel that is critical of a rush to judgement, no absolute moral position is taken. It thereby success-fully avoids stereotyping and knee-jerk reactions, focusing instead on the very individual circumstances that lie behind the case.

I read The Mistake in almost one sitting, and can therefore happily testify to its properties as a page-turner. The plotting and pace are excellent (although there is one ‘lead’ that would surely have been followed up sooner), and its ending will stay with me for a long time to come.

My thanks to Angela Savage for encouraging me to read this novel following an earlier post on crime novels that critique the media (Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Yvonne Erskine’s The Brotherhood). You can read Angela’s own review of The Mistake here as well as Bernadette’s review at ‘Fair Dinkum Crime’ here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Mistake a thought-provoking and utterly gripping 4.5 stars

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