Jane Caro’s first work of fiction for adults channels the confusion and anger that so many Australians experience when confronted with news of the latest tragedy involving intimate partner/family violence and abuse. The community is forced to look at this when news breaks of a murder-suicide or the slaughter of a mother and her children by a controlling partner or ex-partner. These events happen all too frequently. During the ‘in between times’, people forget and resume their lives. This book tells the story of what can happen during those times, the events leading up to the next tragedy, and what happens afterward.
The Mother is told from the perspective of Miriam, a middle- aged woman grieving the recent death of her husband, whose daughter Allison has married after a whirlwind romance. Nick, a vet, appears to be a loving and considerate husband devoted to his new wife. There are some historical fractures in the mother-daughter relationship, and this is what Miriam is concerned about the most as she tries to support her daughter through the loss of her father, her marriage and the birth of two babies.
The novel starts off slowly. In retrospect, I see that this is a way of illustrating the development of an abusive relationship: the controls that start to be imposed by the abuser, sometimes too subtle for family, friends and even the victim to clearly identify. Often there will be an event which results in a sudden escalation of the type and frequency of abusive incidents and behaviours. All too often, as in Ally’s case in this story, it is the birth of a baby, meaning that the abuser increases their threats and controlling behaviour at precisely the time when the woman is at her most vulnerable. Brave, aren’t they, these abusers?
By the time Miriam realises the dreadful truth of her daughter’s marriage, things are very serious indeed. It’s not a plot spoiler to say that she decides to prepare herself – for what, she is not certain. The book opens with a prologue in which Miriam is at a gun shop, purchasing a weapon, though she cannot say what she plans to do with it.
Where this book excels is the portrayal of behaviour now called ‘coercive control’: the monitoring, gaslighting, stalking, financial, sexual and emotional control the abuser wields. It can at times be subtle and at others terrifyingly threatening and/or violent. It keeps the victim walking on proverbial eggshells, constantly wondering if it is she who is at fault, when the next blow up will happen, if that will be the time he finally kills her, or the children or pets.
Thankfully, there is much more awareness and understanding of this today, but in case anyone is wondering if the novel over-dramatises things, I’d suggest reading a few court transcripts or newspaper reports of cases. As with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there is not a single thing in this novel that is not representative of real-life events. The creativity and energy of abusers to find ways in which to hurt or scare their victims is amazing.
The other strength of the book is the character of Miriam. Her doubts, fears, and grief are all beautifully portrayed. It is her love for her family that shines through. In this, I can vouch for its accuracy. My mother was the person who accompanied me to the Family Court during long three years in which the person who had most damaged me used the court as a way of hurting me once I was no longer in physical harm’s way. The best way of terrorising a mother is, indeed, through her children. A loving mother will do whatever she can to ensure the safety of her child or grandchild.
The Mother is written in accessible language and is a quick read, but at times, a confronting one. Thank you, Jane Caro, for writing a book that tells uncomfortable truths in such a relatable way.
The Mother was published by Allen& Unwin in March 2022.