As a child Jodie Garrow’s dreams were modest: to be one of the normal grown-ups she sees in town, with high heels, a station wagon and a handsome husband. But even modest dreams are hard work when you are the neglected child of a poor family in a small community that confers worth and status only to people with the right background. When THE MISTAKE opens Jodie has achieved that dream but her world starts to crumble when her teenage daughter Hannah breaks her leg on a school trip to Sydney and by chance is taken to the same hospital where Jodie once had a baby that none of her family knows about. When she goes to pick up Hannah Jodie meets a nurse who had been present at the earlier birth and she is forced to tell the woman that she had the baby adopted out. However the nurse follows up and learns the adoption, if it took place, could not have been a legal one and she alerts the authorities. Jodie is forced to share the secret of her mistake with her family and all their lives are irreversibly affected as she is effectively put on trial by the media and the community of her small New England town to the north of Sydney.
To say I enjoyed THE MISTAKE would not be quite accurate but only because I spent a good deal of my reading time either spluttereringly angry at some of the horrid, judgemental characters in it or deeply sad at the realism of the wider society the book depicts. But to say I didn’t enjoy the book would give entirely the wrong impression too because I found it so engrossing that at several points I had to be physically dragged away from it in order to attend to real life obligations. There is a lot to both like and admire about this book.
The complex characterisations are one of the standouts, particularly Jodie Garrow who steadfastly refuses to conform to people’s expectations of her. At first she won’t remain in the poverty-stricken life she was born to, then she won’t become the beaming mother those at the hospital assume she will want to be and finally she won’t be the crying, forgiveness-seeking, soul-bearing woman that the media demands when her past is revealed. For all of these refusals she is pilloried by strangers and friends alike, portrayed as uncaring and murderous in the media and misunderstood by almost everyone, even by her family.
Several comparisons are made in the book to the real-life case of Lindy Chamberlain (whose baby daughter Azaria’s disappearance in 1980 prompted truly vile media coverage primarily because Chamberlain was not a ‘typical’ blubbering mess on camera) but as I was only 12 when that took place the events this book reminded me of were more recent. In 2001 two English tourists were kidnapped in the Australian outback and while the woman of the couple, Joanne Lees, escaped the man has never been found (though someone has been convicted of his murder). Local media coverage quickly moved from sympathy for Lees to scathing commentary to all but accusing her of nefarious involvement in events and all because she didn’t cry and appear suitably emotional on camera. In THE MISTAKE James depicts a similar kind of non-conformance from Jodie and her community’s brutal retribution for that failure to conform is also shown with saddening perfection. For, not surprisingly, Jodie’s harshest critics are other women.
Perhaps because I have been reflecting for the past few weeks on the sad reality that in this National Year of Reading only one of eight books voted to represent Our Story was written by a woman, I was struck by what a wonderfully Australian story this book by an Australian woman is. I don’t just mean that it mentions notable locations and so on but it is a story that I think would play out differently if it were set elsewhere. Here aspirations of the sort held by the young Jodie Garrow, for a different life to the one she was born to are not really admired in the way they would be in other places (America for example) and, again, I think James has encapsulated this reality into the book very naturally and credibly.
The book is also about secrets; what happens when they’re kept and what happens when they’re revealed. And Jodie isn’t the only person to have them. Her husband Angus and daughter Hannah have their fair share of things they don’t want anyone else to know. It is quite fascinating to see whether or not the characters will realise that their own desire to keep secrets is the same thing that has been motivating the actions of the wife and mother that both have struggled to forgive for visiting such tribulations upon their family.
THE MISTAKE is a cracker read, almost guaranteed to generate discussion and disparity of opinion amongst its readers, perhaps depending on their own life experiences. For example I was particularly cross at the meddling, busy-body of a nurse who prompted the revelation of Jodie’s past but a colleague who has read the book thought the nurse did exactly the right thing! It is one of those books I know I will recommend over and over again, especially as I think it only dances around the edges of the crime genre so it will be palatable even to those of my friends who profess not to like crime fiction at all.
Thanks to Angela Savage whose review of the book prompted me to buy it. You might also want to check out Book’d Out where Shelleyrae gave the book a glowing review and then interviewed Wendy about her writing.
I’m counting this as my fifth book towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge for the year.
My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Michael Joseph 
Length: 277 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
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