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Posted on 30 Mar 2021 in Fiction |

CASSANDRA AUSTIN Like Mother. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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Cassandra Austin’s second novel is a page-turner that weaves together themes of motherhood and family secrets.

On an ordinary summer’s day in 1969, in a small Australian town, a new mother finds her baby missing from her cot. In this gothic novel, Cassandra Austin draws out the isolation and claustrophobia of new motherhood — and the judgement heaped upon ‘bad mothers’.

Louise is exhausted. Her baby daughter has been screaming for days, refusing to eat, and her husband is away. Steven sells refrigerators and is on the road for days at a time. Austin creates a lingering sense of disconnect between the characters, their part in the unfolding drama, and more generally with the real world, which is unsettling. Louise’s response, often distracted, jars. Why would a missing baby not provoke the most immediate alarm? But she moves as though under water, plagued by self-doubt; she cannot trust herself, she must be to blame. Over this one day, different characters will come and go from the house, hover over Louise, circle her, hint at past events and, eventually, at its close, force open secrets that have festered for years.

The limitations of women’s lives in First World domesticity have been canvassed in much modern literature and Austin brings this out exquisitely. Sold as the dream, Austin shows up its smallness, its hollowness. In the opening pages, Louise is standing in her kitchen, surrounded by pot plants she has brought inside to save from the heat.

[It] has become a jungle, lush with greenery. They line the countertop, brush the cupboards and crowd the edges of the sink, fronding and leafing and flowing… she will have to remove them before Steven gets home. He doesn’t like mess. She, on the other hand, likes the company.

Louise feels the confines of the house so acutely that one day after her daughter’s birth she moves the furniture outside and sits in the front yard. She tries to explain to Steven: ‘You have an office, a business, but I don’t have anywhere else. Some days I don’t hear another human voice except to hear it cry.’ Steven’s refrigerators with their new crispers and multiple compartments are a metaphor for suburban living — houses that are cold and clean and keep their contents separate from each other.

 Sometimes Louise muses on her life, but her husband:

… tells her these thoughts are ‘unproductive’. It seems that everything she does is unproductive – each meal cooked is eaten, the clean sheets are dirtied, the swept floors gather dust, over and over into mindlessness. She is worn down while producing nothing, and it hurts to contemplate.

Betty Friedan called this unnamed emptiness ‘the feminine mystique’ in her seminal 1963 book of that name — a major contributor towards second-wave feminism. In centring home and family at the core of women’s existence, with few avenues for meaningful public engagement or contribution, women’s private pain went unacknowledged.

Louise’s mother, Gladys, is another mystery. She has inserted herself into her daughter’s life to a disturbing degree. She smothers Louise, an infantilising which is not, of itself, so unusual — controlling mothers have existed forever. What makes their bond different is gradually revealed; a mysterious vulnerability is at the crux of their co-dependency.

Austin is a clever writer; her careful selection and placement of words creates surprising, vivid images. Driving across the state in his Holden HR with the latest models, Steven has taken door-to-door selling to a new level. ‘It tips the farmers’ hats back, seeing him rock up with a refrigerator.’ Her characterisation is original, unpredictable. For the most part, the men are not sympathetically drawn. Though Steven loves his wife, he feels misunderstood, his needs not met. He worries about her sanity. He, and other men, will have (women) readers wondering what they were thinking.

The women, in contrast, seem capable, supportive and feisty. Gladys is complex — sexual, divorced, independent. Steven’s secretary, a woman of surprising strength, will play an unexpected role in Gladys’s plans for Louise. The denouement of Like Mother is satisfying, but plot is only one reason to read, and reread, this page-turner.

Cassandra Austin Like Mother Hamish Hamilton 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy Like Mother from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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