Book review: The Mistake by Wendy James

The Mistake
by Wendy James
Penguin/Michael Joseph (Australia), 2012

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.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for kindly sending me a copy of this book. Her review of it is at Fair Dinkum Crime.

16 thoughts on “Book review: The Mistake by Wendy James

  1. It doesn’t, to be honest, sound like my type of book although the premise is interesting. ‘I’ve just finished Charlotte Link’s ‘The Other Child’ which although not about adoption also had a missing child at the centre. These are powerful subjects and sensitively handled can work well.

    My problem with adoption stories I think is that they can ‘sensationalise’ something that is in fact fairly routine. Most adopted people I know, including family members, have fortunately very normal lives.

      • Thanks, Sarah, and will do😉 I have also just read The Hidden Child and have mixed views on it. I preferred The Mistake. The Hidden Child is even more towards the “women’s commercial fiction” genre I think – in my review I likened it to a Maeve Binchy novel. I thought the author amazingly good at writing convincingly about and as an Englishwoman, but the plot was rather weak, & the structure odd (especially given the book’s title).

  2. Sounds really interesting. But is it really just available in Australia? :s Maybe I’ll get this one online.

    • When I read Bernadette’s review I tried to get hold of a copy (any format) in the UK but could not. I tweeted the Australian publisher to ask about UK availability but did not receive a reply.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it even though it isn’t really crime…but as Ian McEwan said when discussing Atonement “every good book involves a crime in some form”. I liked some of the themes the book tackles, the rush to judgement we’re so collectively fond of and so on. But I do agree too that there were a couple of bits that did stray towards the ‘women’s fiction’ end of things – but not too far and not for too long so I could cope with it🙂

    And the author herself confirmed that at this stage she has not sold the rights outside Australasia (which is basically us and NZ I think) so even though the book is available in ebook format I don’t imagine it’s legally accessible to those beyond our shores. Damn those territorial copyright restrictions once again.

    • I certainly enjoyed it, Bernadette. I like this type of book once in a while, and it is nothing like the one Jodi Picoult I once read (due to circumstances outside my control). Such a pity it is not yet going to be available outside Australia as it is certainly one that will travel, in my view. It’s easily as good as Joanna Trollope or Anita Shreve (but distinct from both), who sell very well over here along with lesser titles in that “universe”!

      I love Ian McEwan by the way – and he has a new book coming out in August😉

  4. Maxine – An excellent review as ever, for which thanks. I really want to read this book very much not least because it explores some important themes. The way the press gets hold of a story, the way people rush to judgement about things, and the way people’s lives take unexpected turns. Such interesting perspectives, too. Yes, this definitely goes on the TBR.

    • Thanks, Margot, it is worth seeking out if you can – maybe you could get hold of a copy if you visit NZ again!

  5. Thanks for the review, Maxine. I’ve wanted to read this since posting crime author Caroline Overington’s review of it on the Australian Women Writer’s Blog (April 12). (She didn’t find Jodie convincing but others who reviewed it for the AWW challenge have loved it.)

    Have you read James’ first book, Out of Silence? That won a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel in 2006.

    • Unfortunately I haven’t, Elizabeth – it is not easy to get hold of this author’s books in the UK, unfortunately, but i am keeping an eye out.

  6. Sounds like a great read especially when you consider how steeped in reality it is. The premise of a teenager making a careless, yet life changing, mistake is so believable! The ultimate accountable of foolish choices really makes this book shine through for me.

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