The Mistake; but whose?

It’s funny how sometimes, through no deliberate planning, my reading goes through ‘clusters’. Similar books find themselves back to back in my reading pile, by happy accident.

The last three books I’ve most recently read have been like this. Having this week finished The Mistake, by Wendy James; Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson; and My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson, I realised that whilst quite different in content, all three left me incredibly unsettled, making them hard to put down and their feeling hard to shake. There’s nothing quite like the sense of foreboding that a talented author can communicate through a well-told story.

I’ll review all three books in due course, but I’m going to start with The Mistake, by Wendy James (Penguin).

The general premise of this new Australian novel is spelt out pretty clearly from the outset:

“We all have secrets…

Jodie Garrow is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks when she falls pregnant. Scared, alone and desperate to make something of her life, she adopts out the baby illegally – and tells nobody.

Twenty-five years on, Jodie has built a new life and a new family. But when a chance meeting brings the adoption to the notice of the authorities, Jodie becomes caught in a nationwide police investigation, and the centre of a media witch hunt.

What happened to Jodie’s baby? And where is she now? The fallout from Jodie’s past puts her whole family under the microscope, and her husband and daughter are forced to re-examine everything they believed to be true.”

It’s Jodie’s story, but almost equally the story of her husband Angus and daughter Hannah. All three are scrutinised, criticised and all, in their own ways are found wanting. But interestingly, so are those that surround them and judge them as they face the greatest challenge of their lives. It is these elements of judgement, fault and blame that add a read depth to this book.

With obvious similarities to cases such the investigations into Lindy Chamberlain and Keli Lane, cases which were subjected to incredible hyper-vigilant media coverage and harsh public judgements, this story really drags into the light that which is the demonisation of women who have been accused of doing harm, often to children. Worryingly, these judgement can at times be based on little more than assumption, hearsay and prejudice.  Sometime they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but they are always heartbreaking.

This story really did have me wondering, reconsidering judgements I’d so easily made in the past.

On another level, The Mistake is an incredible study of anxiety, and it’s a sensation shared between character and reader:

“The panic had set in as he read the nurse’s letter, but had become so severe, so overwhelming, that he had only managed by a supreme act of will, to sit and listen to his wife’s account, her revised account, of the adoption. He had escaped as soon as he could, running from the room as if pursued by devils, and the symptoms had taken longer to subside than usual; it had been a full ten minutes – interminable, inescapable – before his heart stopped racing, his breathing returned to normal.”

This feeling of anxiety stayed with me throughout the novel, and took a little while after to shake completely.

Wendy James has very convincingly constructed a scenario by which a woman’s whole life looks to be on a tipping point – she stands to loose everything. Despite their many mistakes, this family is inherently likeable. They are at times frustrating, but their treatment by others is far more so.

The novel itself is well written. It’s original, it’s sense of place is fantastic, and although it took a little getting used to, the use of the third person made for a real ‘birds-eye-view’ story-telling experience.

This novel is not an entirely pleasant experience, but it’s an incredibly satisfying one. I’d recommend it, if for no other reason than that it will help you to look at rumour-mills, small towns and the media in a slight different light. It’s an interesting, challenging point of view, but an important one.

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