Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin / Michael Joseph ebook, 2012). An outstanding portrait of a family in crisis and the repercussions of past mistakes 4.5 stars
Opening line: If, before all this happened, before her – before their – unravelling, she had been asked how her life was, she’d have said that life was good.
The Mistake is Australian author Wendy James’ fourth novel. Like her first, Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for ‘Best First Crime Novel’ and was shortlisted for the Dobbie women’s writing award, it’s a hybrid narrative aimed at a diverse reading audience (doesn’t that cover remind you of something by Jodi Picoult?). While not a conventional crime novel, it raises profound questions about legal and moral boundaries, and the media’s role in pre-judging those it deems to be guilty of transgressing social and cultural norms.
Jodie Garrow is a middle-class wife and mother living in the affluent New South Wales town of Arding. She has the requisite lawyer husband, two children and a dog, and is a respected figure in the local community. However, when daughter Hannah breaks a leg on a school trip to Sydney, Jodie’s carefully ordered existence begins to fall apart. The hospital Hannah is taken to is the same one where Jodie secretly gave birth to a daughter many years before, and when a nurse from that time recognises her, a damaging piece of information comes to light: there is no record of baby Elsa Mary having been given up for adoption as Jodie claims. In the absence of legal proof, the baby may have to be classified as a ‘missing person’ by the police, with suspicion of foul play falling on Jodie as the last documented person to see her alive.
While the question of what happened to the baby looms large, the exploration of the fallout from Jodie’s ‘mistake’ (whatever that turns out to be) is central to this rich, multi-layered narrative. The novel can be read simultaneously as a portrait of a complicated woman, of a family in crisis, of a possible crime, and of the vilification of ‘bad mothers’ by the press. The ‘bad mother’, in this context, is a woman who fails to show the requisite ‘maternal’ qualities or emotion to convince the public that she is innocent of wrong-doing (as in, to a greater or lesser degree, the examples of Lindy Chamberlain, Sally Clark and Kate McCann). We are shown in brilliantly-drawn detail the destruction of an individual’s reputation, and the social consequences for the entire family of the doubts raised about Elsa Mary’s fate.
What stood out for me in particular was the novel’s excellent characterisation, which allows a nuanced picture of Jodie’s identity and her relationships with others to emerge. There’s also a superb analysis of how Jodie is shaped by class, which helps to illuminate her response to her unplanned pregnancy at the age of nineteen. Fittingly for a novel that is critical of a rush to judgement, no absolute moral position is taken. It thereby success-fully avoids stereotyping and knee-jerk reactions, focusing instead on the very individual circumstances that lie behind the case.
I read The Mistake in almost one sitting, and can therefore happily testify to its properties as a page-turner. The plotting and pace are excellent (although there is one ‘lead’ that would surely have been followed up sooner), and its ending will stay with me for a long time to come.
My thanks to Angela Savage for encouraging me to read this novel following an earlier post on crime novels that critique the media (Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Yvonne Erskine’s The Brotherhood). You can read Angela’s own review of The Mistake here as well as Bernadette’s review at ‘Fair Dinkum Crime’ here.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Mistake a thought-provoking and utterly gripping 4.5 stars
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This sound like a real corker, definitely going to read this one. Nice that it is a new to me author too. Currently reading Linda as in the Linda Murder and loving it, but worryingly really like Backstrom, he seems quite sensible to me, what with paying close attention to his stomach and pretending to be on the phone if a boring colleague approaches….this is not a good sign is it?
Not a good sign, no. Actually, I remember when reading it that I found parts of B’s reasoning quite persuasive, but that my view of him did shift a little later (won’t say why, but Persson’s clever like that). B’s relationship with Egon the goldfish was my favourite bit of his characterisation 🙂
I reckon you’d like The Mistake. Great read but plenty to think about too.
I’m so glad you liked this one Mrs P, I thought it terrific too and it made my favourites list for last year.
It’s interesting that you picked up on the class theme – I thought the way that played out marked the book as Australian in some ways – my American sister-in-law read the book and agreed that Jodie striving to be move up in the world would have been viewed very differently in the US. Not sure about England?
I’ve read one more of James’ books since then (Out Of The Silence, a historical novel based on a true story) and plan to read the rest, I think she’s a brilliant writer.
Yes, I really did – I thought it was a fantastic and intelligent read. Thanks for your link too, which I’ll add to the main review in a second.
All of the observations about class could very easily translate to the UK; the novel translates really well for British readers in terms of that social analysis. James absolutely nailed Jodie’s psychology in that respect, I thought. And wasn’t that mother-in-law a piece of work?
I’ll definitely be seeking out more of James’ work in future – thanks for the encouragement 🙂
Mrs. P – I thought this book was brilliant. And I think you’re absolutely right about the characters. James draws them very well so that you really do get caught up in their stories. You’re right that the ending is memorable; I still think about it. And the way James tells Jodie’s story is haunting. Yes, one of the best I’ve read in the last year or so. Glad you liked it too.
Thanks, Margot – everyone seems to have been equally impressed with it – I haven’t come across a single bad review out there which is quite something
All the characters were so credible – and I was very admiring of how James caught all the different mindsets and points of view within the family (such as the teenage daughter’s anger at her mother).
What an unusual story. I’ll add it to my wish list!
Hope you enjoy, Sarah!
Very interesting observations here. I read this and liked it and was also riveted to the pages until I was finished. I thought it was a bit Jodi-Picoultish in story and tone. Not a bad thing, but the similarities occurred to me.
I liked Jodie’s character and could sympathize with her predicament. Liked the various points of view, and thought that Wendy James got the teen-age attitudes well, but the husband — yikes, a rather self-centered lad who caves in to rather awful behavior at a crucial time in his spouse’s life.
And the role of the press is handled well.
What I liked about this book is that it was realistic in showing how an episode in one’s past can come back to haunt someone in so many ways and then can have many repercussions.
I have James’ Out of the Silence and am biding my time, waiting for the hours in which to read it. Friends who love historical fiction about women will be given the chance to read this one, too.
Thanks for your comment, Kathy – I agree with all you say, and thought the way that the past was shown coming back to disrupt Jodie’s present was extremely well handled. Makes you think, doesn’t it…
Hope you enjoy Out of the Silence. I’ll have to check this one out properly now.
I really object to the fact that we’re not all guaranteed at least one full reading day a week and that we can’t read instead of doing tasks, etc. Really, reading is a right!
Couldn’t agree more, Kathy. We have a long weekend here at the moment thanks to the May Bank Holiday, so am getting the chance to catch up a bit with reading. Bliss!
This is about your review of ‘the mistake.’ Thank you for it. I shall definitely read it. Am really repelled by so much contemporary crime writing and have vowed never to read any again but this sounds as if it has some bearing on real life and is not just a bloodfest. Thumbs up?
Yes – very much as you say, Cassandra. A story grounded in real life, that most readers will be able to relate to in some way. It deals with difficult issues in a sensitive and nuanced manner, and raises good, thought-provoking questions. No bloodfests in sight.
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