Dr Dawn Barker, who is also a child psychiatrist, has tackled a courageous topic in her debut novel. I take my hat off to her for daring to write about it, and for managing to pull it off. The subject-matter of this novel is controversial and I imagine people are going to be divided in their feelings and opinions.
This is the story of a once-normal couple that struggle following the birth of their baby, Jack. Motherhood is not what Anna, the mother in the story, was expecting. From the outset, it has been hard — difficulty conceiving, a caesarean birth, and Anna’s not meeting her own expectations of being the perfect mother. She’s constantly fraught and anxious, teetering on the brink, until she can no longer hold it together and slips into psychosis.
Tony, Anna’s husband, just wants to get on with his job and not have to think about his wife. Until the day Anna and Jack go missing. He then questions whether he could have, should have, done more …
This is a well-structured novel and the tension and sense of foreboding build as the story progresses towards the climax. It is told in third person from each of the major characters’ points of view. Time is handled especially well, shifting between the present and the past, showing the events leading to ‘That day’.
The writing is straightforward and easy to read. The characters are realistic, their dialogue authentic, and the description of the action means the story is easily visualised. I felt like I was watching a movie and forgot I was reading.
The story is told sympathetically and without judgment towards Anna, the mother. I found myself, unwillingly at times, feeling sympathetic towards her. It is hard not to feel sympathy for everyone involved.
This book stirred strong emotion in me – a disbelief that a mother could do this; annoyance at her for not seeking help; sympathy for the father and the extended family; utter desolation at the tragic loss that is at the centre of this story; and concern for what will happen in the future. It’s a testament to the story that I feel so powerfully about it.
The descriptions of the early days of motherhood took me back to my own, more than seventeen years ago now. I remember watching my husband trot off to work each morning while I stood at the front door with a jealous heart. Jealous that he could escape — for him, at least, this part of his old life, his old identity, was continuing, while I felt like I’d given mine away to the baby.
I remember nights when, after feeding and changing, the baby still wouldn’t settle. I’d be walking around the lounge at three am, bouncing a wailing babe in my arms, feeling like I was the only person awake at that dead hour. I remember looking down at her, and wishing she’d just SHUT UP. One time, I wanted to throw her and looked around for something cushioned to throw her against.
But I never did. I never hurt my child. Or myself. Nor do most mothers. Most mothers have experienced that newborn fatigue, the grief at the loss of their old selves, and the frustration of a baby that won’t stop crying. I’m sure a lot have felt on the brink, yet no matter what, they manage to stop themselves from losing their grip or harming their children.
What is the difference between most mothers who manage to battle their way through it, and the few who do slip over the edge? Dawn Barker gives us an informed insight into this, a view into the psychotic mind.
I read this book with a squirming discomfit, I must say. For some parts, I wanted to cover my eyes with my fingers. It addresses a topic that would be called a taboo in our society. The role of the mother as protector of her child/children is sacred. Society trusts its mothers to look after their children. There must be no greater violation than to breach this.
Ursula, Anna’s mother-in-law. I know mothers-in-law suffer from bad press, but I challenge anyone not to feel as she does for her son in this situation. Her reactions struck a chord with me. I don’t think I could ever forgive my daughter-in-law …
There’s no scene that leaves you feeling good — it’s stomach-churning stuff — so, I’ll go for a scene that’s particularly striking. That’s still hard to decide as there are so many … The scene in the court room struck me, when Anna is hearing the evidence against her. It’s written from Anna’s perspective, and she tries to block it out by noticing everything going on around her. Exactly how I imagine someone in that situation would be.
Anna: ‘I just wish I could go back. I’d do anything…’ Sums it up for me.
*My next review will be Amanda Curtin‘s Elemental (UWA Press, 2013). I finished it late last night and it’s a huge read. There was so much gold in it and I need to let it lie for a few days so the important threads and themes can rise to the surface. It’s funny, but sometimes I learn more about a novel in the days after I finish it!