The story centres on Jodie Garrow, who rises above a wretched childhood, marries wealthy lawyer Angus — albeit against his mother’s wishes — bears him two children, forgives her husband’s infidelities, and leads a ‘happy enough’ life in the affluent country town of Arding NSW.
Even as a child Jodie aspired only to be ‘one of those normal grown-ups…with pink lipstick, and high heels…a station wagon…[and] a nice handsome husband.’ Though aware that such ambitions were unusual for a bright girl of her generation, ‘Jodie doesn’t let herself think too deeply into just what this striving for social status and security through a man says about her, what it means.’
James shows us precisely what it means when Jodie’s past catches up with her and the life she strived for starts to unravel.
As a teenage nursing student, Jodie had fallen pregnant after a one-night stand, Angus dispatched to London at the time in an attempt by his mother to separate them. Jodie gives birth, arranges to adopt the baby out illegally, tells no one. When the story gets out more than twenty years later, it sparks a nationwide police hunt for the missing child.
Even before a coronial inquest is called, Jodie is subjected to a trial by media, condemned for looking ‘calm, collected, beautiful, cold. Untouched and untouchable.’ As one columnist puts it, ‘We get the sense that she remains unmoved by her own situation, that she’ll be buffered, protected, by all that material privilege.’ A witch hunt reminiscent of the Chamberlain case ensues, this time with the internet.
The narrative point of view shifts from Jodie, to Angus, to their sixteen-year-old daughter Hannah, the action shifting between the present and 1986, when the missing baby Elsa Mary was born. The text is also peppered with media releases and news items. It is a measure of James’ skill that despite being privy to Jodie’s thoughts, I found myself questioning her innocence, then questioning why. Had I started to believe the media hype, finding Jodie Garrow wanting for never having a hair out of place, for staying in control even as her husband and daughter fall to pieces around her?
The tension in The Mistake is palpable, the characters so convincing that at times I had to remind myself this was fiction.
James has written a compelling, gut-wrenching novel that is not easily categorised. Part family drama, part psychological thriller, it pushes the boundaries of the crime genre, equally intent on revealing consequences of a crime, or mistake, for the suspected perpetrator and her family as it is on resolving the case.
I was so taken with The Mistake, I got hold of a copy of James’ debut novel, Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book in 2006, and read that, too. Though set over 100 years apart, both narratives have at their centre women whose humble aspirations to be ‘normal grown-ups’ are thwarted by circumstances. And unwanted pregnancies.
I was inspired to contact Wendy James, whom I met briefly at last year’s SheKilda convention, to talk more about her wonderful books. Watch this space for our interview.
I will be reviewing The Mistake by Wendy James together with Comeback by Peter Corris on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily with Michael Cathcart on Thurs 1 March 2012 at 10am.
The Mistake is published by Penguin. Highly recommended.