The central premise of this compelling novel is that a teenager, Jodie Evans, becomes accidentally pregnant after getting drunk at a party. Out of her depth, she disguises her pregnancy, which is fairly easy as the third trimester occurs over the summer when her fellow-student flatmate is away, then books into a small hospital. After she has the baby, she tells the matron that she wants to have the infant adopted. The matron knows a suitable couple who want a child and is able to cut some red tape for Jodie so that everything is done quickly, but the process is not legal. Jodie is simply pleased to put the whole mistake behind her and to get on with her life.
All would have been well: Jodie marries her childhood sweetheart Angus Garrow, second son of a rich farming family in the small town of Arding, New South Wales. Angus becomes a lawyer; the couple have two children, Hannah and Tom, and live a privileged life with Jodie at the family’s centre as the prefect wife, mother, domestic goddess and devoted charity volunteer. It all begins to unravel when Hannah goes on a school trip to Sydney and breaks her leg. The hospital where she is taken is the same as the one where Jodie gave birth. One of the nurses is still there and, via her complete lack of medical ethics, is able to recognise Jodie, pushily offering to help her find the baby she gave up 24 years ago, despite Jodie’s lack of enthusiasm for the project.
When Jodie and Hannah arrive home, Jodie confides in Tom, who is no angel in the marital fidelity stakes so takes the story in his stride. What neither parent anticipates is what happens next: there is no record of the baby ever having been adopted, and no record of her name anywhere – the matron concerned died some time ago. The nurse therefore informs the authorities, the police become involved, and a nationwide appeal is launched.
The main thrust of the book is to examine the effects of this uncertainty on Jodie, her family and the community in which she lives. As the days and weeks go by, the reader is privy to some of Jodie’s and Tom’s memories of their childhood and youth, so some gaps in their narratives are filled in and they become more real as characters. Jodie is horrified by the internet sites and discussions about her case; she is pilloried in the media, increasingly unable to communicate with her family or they with her, ostracised by people she considered friends, and unwelcome in her volunteering roles. Tension is created by the possibility of an inquest on the missing girl and how Jodie, who at least has managed to cope by withdrawing, will deal with being in the public eye.
The Mistake is undoubtedly a powerful book, one that I was compelled to read to find out what happens in the end. Jodie is the main character and therefore has to be both convincing and involve the reader in order to carry the book. This is mostly achieved successfully, though she does to some extent remain an enigma and one or two of her childhood recollections and the unlikely reappearance of a lost friend push the book slightly too much towards the “women’s commercial fiction” genre for me. The Mistake is not really a crime novel – one obvious (to me) lead is not followed up until near the end of the novel — but it does force us to confront some moral issues and admirably resists the temptation to take any easy options. There is also a real punch at the end. If you can get hold of a copy of the book (unfortunately not on sale outside Australia) it is very well worth reading as an honest, unflinching account of the shallowness of much of society and the compromised nature of what we like to call morality.