Australian gothic: ‘The Mother Fault’

By Bec Kavanagh

Kate Mildenhall’s unrelenting thriller writes into the space between the domestic and the political

It is a deeply discomfiting experience to read a novel set in a near-future dystopia of contemporary Australia, here in the middle of a pandemic. In Kate Mildenhall’s second novel, The Mother Fault, the seeds of tension are planted early, with Mildenhall amplifying present anxieties around increased surveillance, unregulated government intervention and over-the-top security measures.

In an imagined Australia, which has echoes of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, a united government has taken advantage of civil unrest and uncertainty to wrest power from the two-party system. The Department operates through centralised power, its policies enacted by government officials with the authority to send vulnerable citizens to BestLife, where the Department “takes care” of every facet of their lives. The unconscious fear of being sent to a BestLife facility (unofficially, a one-way trip), is played out even in playground games, where children taunt each other with chants of “you’ll be sent to BestLife”. In this world, “resist” is a dangerous word, and murmurs of people disappearing provide an undercurrent of tension beneath domestic life.

Mim, the book’s protagonist, is a mother of two whose days are punctuated by her husband’s arrivals and departures as he travels to and from his work in an Indonesian mine. At the start of the book, Mim is portrayed as a domestic everywoman, resigned to the drudgery of “wiping bums and pureeing organic fucking vegetables”. She is numb to the images and stories on her feed, and numb to the creeping unease because, like many others, the impact of government policies on her life is incremental. More vulnerable bodies and lives buffer her from the worst consequences. Mim’s resignation answers the question that hangs over the circumstances of the novel: how did you let things get so bad? No doubt it’s a question that many readers grapple with when they imagine future conversations with their own children. Mildenhall captures the insidious creep of change, and the feeling of powerlessness that leads to inaction.

The world shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed in the beginning. Let the record show that.

The world shifted slowly. Until it didn’t. When her husband goes missing, Mim finds herself on the run from the Department with her children, dogged by the thought of what might happen if they’re caught. It’s this knife-edge – the fine blade between survival and death, between numbness and reality, between motherhood and freedom – that drives the novel’s captivating tension. The Mother Fault plunges Mim and her children into the heart of a plot typically reserved for men (Liam Neeson’s gruff, threatening father in Taken springs to mind here). It is an unexpected thrill to follow a woman – even more so, a mother – into a high-stakes survival narrative such as this.

The Mother Fault is more than a thriller with a female protagonist though. Mildenhall’s new novel sits alongside books by Australian contemporaries such as Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout. Their work shares thematic connections. All three writers speak to cultural concerns about motherhood, power and climate change, and all three imagine bleak, dystopian futures. Perhaps, with their strong sense of place underpinned by a fierce loneliness, these writers are part of a new wave of Australian gothic. Certainly, there is something about these books that sets them outside of more traditional categories as they exploit conventions of genre fiction to excavate the particular anxieties that underpin domestic lives.

Mim is driven by a great love for her children, and a desire to repair the façade of normality that has allowed them to live relatively happy lives. But when she and her children leave Australia behind, a desire to become something more rises in Mim. The “bad mother”, like the monster, is something we are comfortable with as an aberration. Books like The Mother Fault replace the bad-mother narrative with the more complex truth of mothers who are both good and bad. As she loses herself to the peaceful inevitability of the ocean voyage that will take her from Australia to Indonesia, Mim “wonders at the thrum of that old self, awakening under her skin”. It is a reminder that women might be many things, and that “mother” is not the last or least of these. Mim’s relationship with her children is complex, and it is complicated by contradictory cravings to be a good mother, to survive, to be a whole person. The journey exposes the myth of the “good mother”, as Mim is forced to choose between her children’s immediate happiness and needs, and their long-term safety.

The mother’s faults are many, and they are probably felt even more keenly now, as mothers of all sorts have experienced the stresses of confinement with their children. In this way, Mildenhall’s latest book is deeply introspective, but it is also defiant and hopeful. The Mother Fault is a literary thriller that speaks precisely, devastatingly, to its time.

Bec Kavanagh

Bec Kavanagh is a writer, literary critic and academic. Her research explores representation of female bodies in literature, and she is the schools manager at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.


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