Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2021

Believe in Me, by Lucy Neave

It’s just coincidence, but the last book I read was about a man trying to find out about his father’s past, and now Lucy Neave’s new novel Believe in Me traverses the same territory.  This is part of the blurb:

Lucy Neave’s moving and deeply personal second novel, Believe in Me, explores the relationships between mothers and their children across three generations of one family. The book questions what we can ever truly know of our parents’ early lives, even as their experiences weave ineffably into our identities and destinies.

This is how the novel begins, in 2004, with Bet (Bethany’s) narration:

I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born.  At times, the anecdotes she told about her life make sense.  At others, I traverse a tightrope high above the ground and have to fill the empty air beneath so that I can move from one known place and time to another. (p.3)

But there the resemblances end, because Believe in Me features characters who are very different to the hippie generation in Miles Allinson’s In Moonland.  Bet’s mother Sarah came to Australia pregnant and unmarried in the 1970s because her mother was more worried about protecting the pastor Isaiah Woolcott’s reputation than her daughter’s welfare.

(I mean, seriously, in the sixties I knew of teenage girls being sent interstate to ‘stay with an aunt’, but being sent to another country far away is a whole different thing, eh?)

The plan, in which Sarah had neither say nor foreknowledge, was that she would be sent to one of those notorious ‘homes for unmarried mothers’ and that her baby would be given to her childless aunt.  But Sarah had other ideas, coinciding with the era of the reformist Whitlam Labor government.  It abolished the deficit model of  ‘unmarried mothers’ and replaced it with welfare support for single parents. That did not, of course, put an end to judgemental attitudes overnight.  And since Sarah doesn’t have enough money for a fare home, her mother’s indifferent reaction to her plea for help means that Bethany grows up an only child in Australia with no connection to her family in the US or to the aunt and uncle who dumped Sarah in the institution.

So this is a migration story utterly unlike the national narrative, of people choosing to come here for a better life, settling in and often sponsoring extended family to join them.  Sarah’s support network depends entirely on friends, especially Dora.  And though (research shows that) many children of single parents grow up well-adjusted and at no educational or behavioural disadvantage to their peers, Bet’s circumstances do affect her relationships.  She is restless, troubled and does not trust easily.  She is unmoored from place and from people… even when she is a qualified vet, she finds it hard to settle into a practice, and prefers to work as a locum where she can leave at any time.  She despises the commercial imperatives of suburban veterinary practice, especially the euthanising of healthy dogs because they don’t fit a breed’s standards, but still, she hankers after the security she’s denying herself:

He said, ‘Next week, I need someone at a clinic I’m trying to build up.  Can you do horses?’

I shrugged and smiled, ‘Anything.’

‘I’ll give you time to think.’

He stood, picking up the keys to his black Audi or whatever it was, and told me that he had to go to Cremorne.  No doubt he was saying this to remind me about all the lucrative practices he owned, of how they were spread across Sydney’s North Shore and beyond.  On the one hand, I thought it was pathetic to put such store in these places that made their money selling dog food and leashes with an attractive pattern.  On the other, I thought, Why not? Why not live a more secure existence?  Why not grow up, just a little? (p. 212)

Her mother Sarah is a wildlife rescue volunteer, showing the nurturing and protective side of her character that complements her fierce determination to keep her baby against all odds.  Her transition from docile teenager to fierce activist is a testament to the resilience of women in this era.

When we are bereaved, we often treasure mementoes of the one we have lost, and in this book Sarah’s scrapbook is invested with many meanings.  Like many of us, she keeps all kinds of odd things that have a story known only to her, and Bet tries to salvage these meanings to make connections in her mother’s life.  The cover art by Sarah Jarrett picks up on this with that curious image of a comb.  On Bethany’s last day with her mother—before she gets sent to Idaho to help the pastor—she combs her mother’s hair and trims it, and as she leaves she notices that the cutting was uneven.  In later years she wishes she had fixed this before she left.  So  this comb symbolises both ‘unfinished business’ and the mother-daughter closeness that is severed on that day.

Believe in Me is a richly textured novel about the freedom to be who you really are.

Author: Lucy Neave
Title: Believe in Me
Cover design by Sandy Cull; illustration by Sarah Jarrett art
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780702263361, pbk., 312 pages
Review copy courtesy of UQP/


Responses

  1. I was lucky to get an ARC and absolutely loved this book. Lucy writes so beautifully and the story had me captivated. Intriguing cover too!

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    • Hello Irma, and while you’re here, thank you for writing The Breaking which was such an interesting book.
      Yes, the cover of this one puzzled me at first too!

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  2. I’m sure it’s a moving story and I’d like my mother to tell me more about how she came to run away with my father. But by the 1970s it was pretty common for babies to be born out of wedlock, and for mothers to keep them. I’m not sure when all those homes for unwed mothers shut but it must have occurred reasonably suddenly during the 70s when the baby boomers saw no stigma in being unmarried.

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    • I think you’re right, maybe not in conservative religious communities in the US?

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  3. Yet another book I think I need to read. Sigh ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just unpacked a HUGE stack of Sept new releases at work today, and this was one of the ones that appealed to me most – the cover detail and Gail Jones quote piqued my interest – so thanks for filling in the rest.
    Now I just need more time to read it!!!!!!

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    • I know, I’ve been doing so many posts during the waking hours that I’ve hardly had time to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That uneven haircut: so symbolic for the characters. (But also so symbolic of pandemic life. At least as far as my fringe goes. LOL)

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    • Oh yes, oh yes indeed. I think I’m going to have to start wearing a hat on Zoom…

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