Book review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

One of the more noticeable aspects of any authoritarian regime, propaganda extolling its innate, inspiring virtue notwithstanding, is the starkly evident, almost palpable lack of humanity.

There is power and control in abundance, toxic micro-managing and surveillance in abundance and a foreboding sense of loss any kind of freedom or choice; but humanity? Long gone with any respect for human rights or belief that people matter beyond being cogs in a frighteningly well-oiled machine.

Hence, you can’t help but pick up on the vibrant, desperate, fiercely-guarded and upheld humanity that infuses every last word in Kate Mildenhall’s terrifyingly evocative novel The Mother Fault even as its narrative is shaped harshly and without respite by a regime to dictatorially precise and intense that no aspect of human existence is left accidentally unintended.

In the Australia of the near-future, fear and concern for the future, and an exhaustion with established politics as narcissistic self-interest, have left the populace to vote in a party promising to Do Something.

As a political slogan – not the actual one by the way; much paraphrasing and over-capitalising has gone on there – it’s invigorating and empowering but what it leads to soon proves to be anything but as people find themselves watched over to within an inch of their tightly-controlled lives and society takes on a shape and form, augmented by sinister chipping technology, that would have made the Stasi glow with pride.

“Mim rakes back back through the messages, the conversations, that last video call in her mind. Had he seemed more stressed? Secretive? The calls were always monitored so it’s not like he could have told her if anything was wrong. She shakes her head, separates the two events in her mind. She is conflating them for nothing. Coincidence that the woman called today, that’s all. Strange and unsettling, but nothing more.

Ben will be home. Ben will be home and everything will go back to normal.” (P. 15)

Once iconic Aussie mateship has gone out the window, as has any concern for a selfless sense of community or willingness to stick your neck out for others – it hasn’t gone entirely but for most Australians, the bywords are “caution” and “adherence” – replaced by an overweening need to toe the line and not be noticed by a government which turns supposedly laudable social programs into instruments of life-ending state control and law and order measures into blunt instruments of coercion.

It’s in this charged environment that Mim aka Miriam’s husband Ben disappears, calling in from the ARC mining project he works on in climate change-stricken Indonesia one day, and gone the next.

Keenly aware that she is the sole carer and line of defense for her two kids, Essie and Sam, and cognisant of the fact that the presence of the Department (there is only one for everything in this new, totalitarian Australia) in her living room cannot mean anything good, Mim initially tries to tough things out, believing that Ben will come home, Essie will get selected for the local soccer team and all will be (relatively) well.

That’s fine as a way of coping with some alarming news but it soon becomes manifestly inadequate in a world where what’s wrong and could endanger you, and swiftly and without mercy fr outnumbers those things that will protect and uplift you.

So Mim goes on the run, setting in train one of the most thrillingly unnerving narratives you will read all year.

But also, and this is where the beating heart of this immersively brilliant book lies, one of its most human, with Mim need to do what is right rather than what is legally sanctioned in the brave new world she inhabits, driving her actions at every turn.

Kate Mildenhall (image (c) Cat Black via official author site)

What Mim also discovers, or rather re-discovers after years as a wife, mother and sister and daughter to the exclusion of almost everything else, is exactly what she’s capable of, and how far she will go to safeguard her family.

That may, of course, sound like some cheesy tagline for a vigilante movie but in Mildenhall’s deftly-nuanced hands, it is anything but.

The Mother Fault, far from being some melodramatic, Gruyere-fest of overwrought actions and crudely-articulated emotions, is as real, affecting and human as it gets.

There is nothing about what Mim does and why she does it that won’t resonate with anyone, especially in a world which is tipping into fascistic authoritarianism at a speed that is almost as unnerving as the world events and trends that are impelling its rise and ever more terrifying rise.

At the heart of this heart-in-your-mouth and edge-of-the-seat tale of running and evading a power far greater than your own, in and of itself more than enough for a desperately involving storyline, lies an innate, strong and exhausted humanity, one which relies less on bravado and Hollywood-esque bravura and more on the fragile but tenacious reality of what it means to fight for everything you know and love.

We are all Mim as she races up the coast from her home in Melbourne, through the roads of the Australian outback and across the sea to find Ben, all the while trying to evade the overwhelming power and surveillance of the Department and her own sense that everything will fall apart, personally and in every other respect, long before she gets any answers about Ben and knits some semblance of life back again.

“This dark press on her heart, on the inside of her, a growl that is building in the back of her throat. She is mad for taking them out to sea. Mad to stay. She pushes herself up and out of bed. Remembers Heidi coming to her in the dark. You have to go, she had said, you have to go now.” (P. 187)

One thing you notice again and again, quite apart from how freakishly close we are in many countries to just such a regime, joining those countries that have long known nothing but, is how tenacious the human spirit is.

Not in some inspiring documentary-of-the-week kind of way, all stirring strings and tearful close-ups, but in that gritty, down-in-the-trenches manner that happens when real, ordinary people find themselves in a situation so extreme and extraordinary that they have to pull deep from somewhere just to make their way through.

Which is what Mim does in ways that will leave you feeling empowered and thrilled, but far more than that, all too aware of how much we sacrifice in our lives for the things we value.

Not simply when the chips are down, which they most certainly are for Mim, but in day-to-day life which is, often unnoticed by us, marked by all kinds of compromise and loss, the type that passes by us unremarked and unmourned until circumstances dictate that it is brought into sharp and scary relief.

The compulsively-readable and emotionally evocative heart of The Mother Fault is not its authoritarian setting or the action-centric plot that drives it magnificently and with tremendous truthfulness and evocative insight but its raw, unapologetic, messy, desperate humanity, the kind that feels alien at first after so many years suppressing it but which quickly becomes the thing that matters, especially when the nightmarish forces that stand in its way have long abrogated theirs.

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