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Posted on 10 May 2022 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

JANE CARO The Mother. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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Jane Caro’s new novel deals frankly with coercive control.

Though I knew the gist of the issues raised by The Mother before I began – I’d read the devastating stories of victims of domestic violence, watched the news, and thought I understood the issues – this novel still shocks.

Its first words tell you that this middle-aged woman in a puffer jacket could be any one of the women at the school gate, at the deli, in the post office. Could it be you or someone you know? Furious at the inaction on women and children killed by their former partners,  Jane Caro – who is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist – wrote The Mother as a contribution to our collective understanding. Though she has written many other books, including a YA trilogy of novels about Elizabeth I, this is her first novel for adults, and it’s a fast-paced, edgy read.

Barely a week passes without news of another woman killed in circumstances where police knew the prior history of violence and the threat of further harm, where restraining orders had been breached, where the woman had left the relationship, sought refuge, but was menaced, hunted down and killed. The Mother shows the threat escalation by men (and yes, they are all men) who appear ordinary, and the ways they normalise and rationalise their control.

Miriam’s younger daughter, Ally, is engaged to be married after a short romance. She seems wholly besotted with Nick, who moved into her flat ‘almost as soon as they’d met’. He establishes himself firmly in Ally’s life, and Caro plants an early warning when Miriam can’t recall seeing her daughter alone since Nick’s arrival, but the signal is too remote. She doesn’t see what’s coming.

The first half of the book brings the reader up close to Ally’s unfolding loss of control as she moves to the country with Nick, separating from her friends and family, and where life begins to revolve around him entirely. She gives up her car, abandons her studies, adopts new habits, and is now only known by his new nickname for her, ‘Sonny’. Soon she is pregnant. Nick ramps up his control, questioning her mental health, gaslighting her, keeping Miriam at a distance.

Miriam becomes worried. With precision, Caro draws out the tension between acting or not, believing one’s gut or accepting what one is told, turning against one’s better instincts. Early in the book, Miriam’s husband, Ally’s father, dies. Amid her own grief, and with the pressures of running her business, it is harder for her to see her daughter’s changed behaviour.

And Nick was lovely, everyone had agreed. The busyness of our lives, the feeling of disbelief that this could happen to nice middle-class people, the isolation of our nuclear families and lack of community all contribute to a collective blindness to violence. It makes it hard to see changes in someone we thought we knew. Is this behaviour normal? What is normal, anyway? It is not a coincidence that Jeremy, one of the few people to call out Nick’s behaviour, is a new friend of Ally’s in her small town; he has no stake in preserving the fiction of Ally’s life.

When Ally is finally able to access the resources to leave, we are only halfway through. The second half portrays law enforcement’s ineffectual swats at Nick’s repeated stalking and harassment. It evokes well the suffocating fear, the curtailed lives, the imprisoning of the victims.

When first faced with the extent of Nick’s rage at Ally’s flight and his loss of control, Miriam feels desperately tired. It wasn’t her fight. ’She wanted someone else to do it too – whatever “it” might be.’ Her helplessness in the face of the lack of support, the feeling of having lost the ground beneath her feet, allows blame to settle where it is least deserved. ‘But if he’s making her so miserable,’ she says out loud, ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’

Then she blames herself:

Admit it, hissed the voice—it felt like a snake coiled around her cerebellum—you were relieved when Nick came along, relieved to get this difficult daughter off your hands. Aren’t you guilty too? And you believed Nick when he told you your daughter was crazy. You bought his story hook, line and sinker. You are a bad mother.

But Miriam doesn’t sit back. Her actions may be extreme but Caro has paid close attention to women’s lives for many years. Her depiction of Julie, Miriam’s neighbour, is prescient, being exactly the sort of woman now drawn to the teal independents who may be a powerful force in an incoming government. Julie has moved closer to Miriam’s politics over time – ‘The Trump presidency had frightened Julie out of some of her more conservative ideas.’

Recognition of coercive control as domestic violence, as abuse, has been slow, the necessary legal reform and policy changes to protect its victims glacial. The Mother brings its pervasive and systematic destruction of individuals to life. Caro is keeping that pressure on lawmakers – now a Senate candidate, she intends to take the fight to Canberra.

Jane Caro The Mother Allen and Unwin 2022 PB 368pp $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 The Mother from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

Or check if this book is available from Newtown Library.

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