Warning: some people may find the content of this review distressing. Please accept my sincere apologies if this is so, and visit the Australian Government’s Find and Connect website for counselling and support services.
Rod Jones’ new novel The Mothers is such a different book to Julia Paradise (see my review)- it’s hard to believe it’s by the same author. At one level, it’s a family epic which begins with the travails of a single mother in the early 20th century, but on another level it’s a social history that interrogates motherhood and mothering in a way that I haven’t come across before – not least because it’s written with great sensitivity by a male author whose own life experience bleeds into the book.
As I mull it over, I wonder what kind of reader this novel will speak to… Peter Pierce in The Australian was a bit hard on it, I think. I found the first few chapters less enticing than I’d expected -but as Jones quickly moves more into the period of living memory, there is less overt reliance on research and the voices become more authentic. Alma, born in 1909 and married in her teens only to be tossed aside for a new woman when barely into her twenties, reacts emotionally as most of us would, but her choice to leave Fairweather was an unusual response for those days. And I suspect that choosing to go home with a man she didn’t know is something most women with small children would hesitate to do today, even if they were homeless…
Fortunately, Alma falls on her feet, so to speak, and Alfred Lovett’s mother takes her in out of charity – and doesn’t kick her out when she gets pregnant with Molly, born in secrecy towards the end of the First World War. But this kindness comes at a cost: Alma’s life becomes a lie and her dependence on Molly’s father for financial support and occasional visits offers no way out of poverty and social exclusion. Her voice is bitter and confused because she craves the respectability she can’t have in the days before no-fault divorce. She wants the security and social position that comes with a man about the house but she doesn’t love Alfred – and never did. She was just achingly lonely.
When times get really tough, Molly is placed in care, at the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton. (Click here to see an image that shows how forbidding it must have been to a small child.) In these chapters the naïve, confused voice of Molly is a poignant reminder that institutions like this, no matter how benevolent their intentions, were dreadful places for children to be. Denied the secrets of her birth Molly grows up tentative, insecure and over-protective of David, the child she eventually adopts.
If I had some doubts about the authenticity of Alma’s voice, there were none at all about the voice of Anna, David’s mother in the 1950s. This story of her foolish love for a man who wasn’t worth it; her well-meaning parents’ decision to place her in The Haven, a punitive Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers; and her doomed ambition to keep her baby is heart-rending. Jones captures the ostracism so well, I was reminded that when I was a small child the back pews in church were reserved for ‘the bad girls’, dressed alike in dowdy drabs so that everyone would know who they were. (Not that I knew then why they were ‘bad’. That understanding came much later, along with my shame that I had labelled them that way to my equally ignorant friends. It just shows how easy it is to drift into judging others.)
David is a difficult child, restless and insecure because he picks up on Molly’s insecurities about her own childhood and her mothering. To the irritation of her husband Percy (who of course wants to raise a more ‘manly’ son) she mollycoddles David and keeps him home from school with feeble excuses about being unwell. Despite this he gets to university and becomes radicalised in the fervour of the 1970s. And that’s the era of free love, and spurning bourgeois institutions like marriage…
The women’s voices threaded through the narrative share common problems: an inability to assert themselves; the judgemental attitudes of others; and a passionate love of their children that isn’t supported in the worlds they inhabit. Young men don’t come out of this novel well, but there are loving fathers even if they get it wrong.
Readers will, I think, read this novel differently if they know the background to its writing, so here’s the link to Jane Sullivan’s interview at the SMH – make up your own mind about whether to consult it. It certainly enriched my admiration for this book after I’d finished my reading of it.
PS Pity about the cover. This book deserves better.
Author: Rod Jones
Title: The Mothers
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Text
Fishpond: The Mothers and all good bookstores.