WARNING: Possible spoiler alert — I’ve tried not to divulge specific detail in this review, but found I couldn’t do it justice without hinting at some of the events.
Dr Dawn Barker, who is also a child psychiatrist, has tackled a courageous topic in her debut novel. I take my hat off to her for daring to write about it, and for managing to pull it off. The subject-matter of this novel is controversial and I imagine people are going to be divided in their feelings and opinions.
This is the story of a once-normal couple that struggle following the birth of their baby, Jack. Motherhood is not what Anna, the mother in the story, was expecting. From the outset, it has been hard — difficulty conceiving, a caesarean birth, and Anna’s not meeting her own expectations of being the perfect mother. She’s constantly fraught and anxious, teetering on the brink, until she can no longer hold it together and slips into psychosis.
Tony, Anna’s husband, just wants to get on with his job and not have to think about his wife. Until the day Anna and Jack go missing. He then questions whether he could have, should have, done more …
This is a well-structured novel and the tension and sense of foreboding build as the story progresses towards the climax. It is told in third person from each of the major characters’ points of view. Time is handled especially well, shifting between the present and the past, showing the events leading to ‘That day’.
The writing is straightforward and easy to read. The characters are realistic, their dialogue authentic, and the description of the action means the story is easily visualised. I felt like I was watching a movie and forgot I was reading.
The story is told sympathetically and without judgment towards Anna, the mother. I found myself, unwillingly at times, feeling sympathetic towards her. It is hard not to feel sympathy for everyone involved.
This book stirred strong emotion in me – a disbelief that a mother could do this; annoyance at her for not seeking help; sympathy for the father and the extended family; utter desolation at the tragic loss that is at the centre of this story; and concern for what will happen in the future. It’s a testament to the story that I feel so powerfully about it.
The descriptions of the early days of motherhood took me back to my own, more than seventeen years ago now. I remember watching my husband trot off to work each morning while I stood at the front door with a jealous heart. Jealous that he could escape — for him, at least, this part of his old life, his old identity, was continuing, while I felt like I’d given mine away to the baby.
I remember nights when, after feeding and changing, the baby still wouldn’t settle. I’d be walking around the lounge at three am, bouncing a wailing babe in my arms, feeling like I was the only person awake at that dead hour. I remember looking down at her, and wishing she’d just SHUT UP. One time, I wanted to throw her and looked around for something cushioned to throw her against.
But I never did. I never hurt my child. Or myself. Nor do most mothers. Most mothers have experienced that newborn fatigue, the grief at the loss of their old selves, and the frustration of a baby that won’t stop crying. I’m sure a lot have felt on the brink, yet no matter what, they manage to stop themselves from losing their grip or harming their children.
What is the difference between most mothers who manage to battle their way through it, and the few who do slip over the edge? Dawn Barker gives us an informed insight into this, a view into the psychotic mind.
I read this book with a squirming discomfit, I must say. For some parts, I wanted to cover my eyes with my fingers. It addresses a topic that would be called a taboo in our society. The role of the mother as protector of her child/children is sacred. Society trusts its mothers to look after their children. There must be no greater violation than to breach this.
Ursula, Anna’s mother-in-law. I know mothers-in-law suffer from bad press, but I challenge anyone not to feel as she does for her son in this situation. Her reactions struck a chord with me. I don’t think I could ever forgive my daughter-in-law …
There’s no scene that leaves you feeling good — it’s stomach-churning stuff — so, I’ll go for a scene that’s particularly striking. That’s still hard to decide as there are so many … The scene in the court room struck me, when Anna is hearing the evidence against her. It’s written from Anna’s perspective, and she tries to block it out by noticing everything going on around her. Exactly how I imagine someone in that situation would be.
Anna: ‘I just wish I could go back. I’d do anything…’ Sums it up for me.
Fractured, by Dr Dawn Barker, Hachette Australia, 2013 $29.99
*My next review will be Amanda Curtin‘s Elemental (UWA Press, 2013). I finished it late last night and it’s a huge read. There was so much gold in it and I need to let it lie for a few days so the important threads and themes can rise to the surface. It’s funny, but sometimes I learn more about a novel in the days after I finish it!
Wow! Great review. This topic is so timely at the moment. I think part of the problem is the breaking down of society into ever smaller parts – the nuclear family which doesn’t have strong ties to an extended support network is under a tremendous amount of pressure. In societies where mothers are more communal and less isolated, where kids are free to play together in groups for extended periods of time, where the responsibility is spread around, all this allows space to really enjoy parenthood, family life and identity as something incorporated rather than separated from the community. A real community. Maybe we need to get back to this kind of thing. It protects everyone from harm to some extent. I see young mums and dads meeting in cafes with their babies and toddlers, and I think it’s great, but I notice that there is also some cynicism around it – I expect by people who have never experienced the pressure. There is also the pressure to be the perfect parent, especially in middle class families where expectations are so high. The book sounds like a tough read, but one that will lead to new insights into what can go wrong when the supports aren’t in place.
Once again, Iris, I cannot agree with you more. As a society, we seem more ‘fractured’ than ever before, and so do our families. I know we’ve not evolved to live this way. We’re meant to live and work together, the women working together, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, while the kids play with their cousins. There is huge support for everyone in societies like that — no one is alone — and this is the way it’s meant to be. Even a generation or two ago in western society, extended family shared a home or at least were a stone’s throw from each other. We don’t live like that anymore and we now rely on professionals and the government to pick up the pieces and provide the support that once came from family.
I agree, too, with the pressure to be supermum, and there is judgment and criticism levelled towards mums from all directions. From older women towards ‘mothers these days’, from stay-at-home mums towards working mums, and vice-versa. We’re meant to be giving our kids everything, running them hither and thither, and still have tidy homes, neat figures and cook well-nourished meals. It’s an impossible goal! Instead of judgement, we need to be accepting and supportive.
This book is on my to read list, Louise. Love your review. A couple of other friends have also recommended it to me. I wonder if you’ve read Devotion by Ffion Murphy? Deals with a similar theme and was also gut wrenching at the moments you just want to jump in and do something. And I like tough reads…they teach me so much.
Well worth a read, Rashida. This novel has many layers, and you will most likely pick up different things from it than I did.
No, I haven’t read Devotion — is Ffion a relative? (Just joking!) I love a tough read, too. Yes, you learn and it gives you insight.
A wonderful and sensitive review Louise. I agree 100% with Iris. But I also believe that society needs to show greater compassion for women going through post natal psychosis, if that is what Anna in Fractured is experiencing and hence explains her actions. At the moment society treats women who harm their babies very harshly. Too harshly in my opinion, it is treated as a crime when it is far more complex psychological and sociological issue. Women who harm their babies are not of sound mind, and are often, as Iris mentioned, isolated from help.
Your Dutch compassion is showing, Marlish, and I agree with you. I remember learning in Medical School that a couple of rare crimes were always associated with psychosis — the mother in this story commits one of them. That’s why this book is so good — it challenges a sacred belief, and one that I, myself, hold dear. That’s why I squirmed — my judgemental side was screaming, No! How could you do it! But there I was, getting an insight into her thinking that made it all sound rational. I must admit, I find it easier to have compassion for the character in this story than I might in real life. One big question I was left with at the end, was how would the woman herself ever truly recover? I don’t think she would …
I haven’t read your review yet or the comments of others. I have just finished Chapter 6 of Fractured (kindle edition) and am hooked. I can’t wait for the guilty pleasure of reading more.
Yep, it’s pretty much like that the whole way through — you can’t put it down, as tragic as it is at times! Let us know what you think of it when you reach the end, Penny.
Thanks, Louise, for such a thoughtful review of Fractured. My hope in writing it was that it would make people think about the expectations we have of new mothers and the reasons why we find it so hard to ask for help and admit we are not coping. And of course, the stigma and misunderstanding about mental health. There are no easy answers and even as a psychiatrist, I struggle at times with clinical cases where my instincts are different to my theoretical reactions.
Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Dawn. I think you achieved your aims! Before I read this novel, if someone had told me I would read a book about this subject and feel compassion, I suspect I would have disagreed.
I couldn’t agree more about how hard it is to ask for help when struggling to cope, and that doesn’t just apply to new mothers.
I hope Fractured continues to be received well and good luck with your next project.