Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

‘Sometimes she feels like a useless mother.’

Meet Louise Ashland, wife of Steven, mother of baby Dolores. It is 1969 in Australia, and while man has just walked on the moon, most mothers stay at home with their children. In Louise’s case, she is breaking under the weight of other people’s expectations. She is sleep deprived, Dolores won’t stop crying, her mother Gladys is hypercritical, and Steven is on the road with his work.  And then Dolores falls asleep. As does Louise. But when she wakes up, she cannot find Dolores.  What has happened?

The story unfolds over a single day. Louise is frantic: continually searching the house for Dolores. Her mother telephones: she wants to visit. Louise says no because Dolores is sleeping. She cannot tell Gladys that Dolores is missing. Louise’s anxiety increases.

The missing baby is just one thread of this unsettling story. But who can the reader trust? Is Louise a reliable narrator? We also have the perspectives of Gladys and Steven, and we learn that both have secrets.

Ms Austin maintains dramatic tension for the entire novel. We gradually learn about an event in the past which undermines Louise’s confidence while becoming increasingly concerned for Dolores. Gladys is working to undermine Louise’s marriage, and Steven is far from perfect.

Sigh. I was a teenager in 1969, and I remember when most mothers (mine included) did not work outside the home and were seen as being totally responsible for everything within it. There was little support for mothers who struggled, and plenty of criticism of those who ‘failed’ to meet the nearly impossible parenting standards considered appropriate. And for a mother to misplace a child? Well, surely that was a hanging offence.

But because the reader cannot be certain about the reliability of the narrators, it is difficult to work out who (if anyone) can be trusted. And as time passes, concern for Dolores pushed other aspects of the story out of my mind.

I finished this book reminded of just how exhausting motherhood can be and how our own parenting influences the way we parent.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith