ANNA GEORGE The Lone Child. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
The Lone Child focusses on character development, imbued with sadness, longing, regret and loss.
Following on from her stunning debut novel, What Came Before, Anna George has created another claustrophobic and compelling character study of somebody struggling with the complications of day-to-day life.
New mother Neve Ayres was an independent career woman, well-to-do and seemingly cautious, careful and considered. Finding herself struggling to adjust to life as a single mother in the comfortable surrounds of her cliff-top holiday home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, the persona she’s constructed is slipping away from her, and she’s torn between wanting a return to her past and embracing the changes:
As a child, she’d been complimented often on her stoicism. Called her father’s ‘little rock’. She tilted her head for a second time. She stared back at her baby in his bassinet. Had he done this? Unearthed these feelings in her? And if so, why? Why now? By way of answer, he wee’d in a perfect arc. To her dismay, her tears spilt. Overwhelmed, she turned from him to peer out to the clouds. In that moment, she couldn’t have cared less if a trespasser had broken in and was reading a book on design downstairs.
Ayres has always looked after herself. After her mother died when she was just seven she had to grow up in a hurry. Total control has always been her way of coping, as was her affair with a recently separated man and their decision to try for a baby. Everything about their life was plotted out. Except when his wife came back, and he left Ayres when she was eight months pregnant. Control was required again, and her move into isolation with her young son makes sense for a woman struggling to adjust to a life that she’s allowed to spin out of control:
Neve Ayres pretended she didn’t know the baby strapped to her chest. He was still crying, this thin, newly alive cry. She tried to focus on the metronomic wash of the sea and the pungent blankets of seagrass underfoot. The colours – rust, charcoal and mossy green. But the baby’s cries, caught on a gust, circled her head. Obliterating everything. She stopped, puffing.
When a small girl appears in her neighbourhood, seemingly neglected, under-nourished and uncared for, Ayres is concerned. Young Jessie (as she ends up calling her), is drawn to Ayres, her home and baby Cliff and as they become closer this young waif turns out to be a source of comfort, care and love for Ayres herself. She is torn between an instant attachment to Jessie and guilt over another mother’s desperation:
Neve felt herself poised on a precipice: how much did she want to know? And what would that knowledge herald? What if the mother was despairing somewhere? Frantic? Her stomach seized at the thought: the woman was a working mother. What if, exhausted, she’d momentarily lapsed? Twice? But surely if the mother was functional – sober, sane, safe – she’d have called the police? She would.
A tense and intricate psychological study, The Lone Child switches between Ayres and her life, which quickly comes to include her internal struggles over Jessie, and that of Jessie’s mother Leah. There are snippets of information about Ayres’s background – her father’s dodgy business practices, the relationship with her ex and whether he will have any interaction with his son Cliff, and the friendship, or perhaps attraction, she starts to feel for another man.
Jessie’s real name is Tayla and while Leah is a struggling and erratic mother, she’s doing the best she can and she does care. Leah’s financially insecure, cleaning for a living and couch-surfing with two young kids. The contrast between her and Ayres is obvious, and initially almost judgemental.
Then there’s the laid-back, gentle Sal. A stonemason called in to repair the fence at Ayres’s property, he’s calm, measured, recently bereaved, and could be attracted to Ayres. Which unfortunately in this day and age seems as sinister as it does touching:
He hadn’t been close to his dad, who’d left when Sal was five and his brothers were three and one. When he’d heard, eight years ago, that Sandro Marioni died alone in Perth, Sal hadn’t felt much. But with the passing of his mum, Sal was feeling everything. The world around him felt emptier yet his experience of it was heightened; and his own end felt more inevitable.
Misdirection and doubt, harrowing emotion and poignancy are combined elegantly in The Lone Child. Despite no lack of opportunities for digs at the idea of the perfect mother, motherly instincts, and the expectations for care and concern for your children, The Lone Child opts for a different direction. It highlights much that is similar between the two women, and how much circumstances have affected their lives. It’s brave enough to explore the idea that motherhood is difficult for some women regardless of socio-economic status.
All this emotional turmoil is set within a perfect backdrop. Isolated, stark, wintery, cold and slightly overbearing, it’s gothic in feel, feeding into the sadness and bleakness of both mothers’ struggles:
Beneath a leaden sky, the foreshore was bedraggled. Thanks to the storm and the king tide, the hills of wrack were high and nudging at the boundaries of the grand houses laying their claim to the sea. To the south, the fishing boats lined the pier and distant walkers were upright sticks on the sand. But to the north, paddocks rolled down to the hills to meet the bracken and seaweed, as the coast stretched towards Shoreham. Less inhabited: that was the way to go.
The Lone Child is a psychological thriller focused on character development, imbued with sadness, longing, regret and loss. It cleverly balances the raw emotions of all the main characters against an overwhelming sense of suspense and unspecified threat. That there’s a twist at the end won’t come as a surprise, but what it is, how the characters react, and what effect that has on readers is not as predictable, nor is the impact any less.
Anna George The Lone Child Viking 2017 PB 288 pages $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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