The Mother Fault
Simon & Schuster, $32.99 pb, 360 pp
Kate Mildenhall’s confronting new novel, The Mother Fault, is set in an alarming near-future Australia. Climate change has left refugees ‘marking trails like new currents on the maps as they swarm to higher, cooler ground’. Sea levels have risen, species have died out, farmlands have been contaminated, and meat is a luxury. Unprecedented bushfires occur regularly; technology and surveillance are ubiquitous, with bulbous cameras hanging ‘like oddly uniform fruit bats from the streetlights’. The media is controlled, and Australian citizens are microchipped and monitored by a totalitarian government known as ‘the Department’. The ‘Dob in Disunity’ app offers ‘gamified’ rewards to informants (‘Even kids could join in the fun!’), while troublemakers can be relocated to ‘BestLife’ housing estates where the reality is far from the Instagram hashtag. Reflecting on the events that led to this, protagonist Mim notes that the world ‘shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed in the beginning.’
The Mother Fault is both a dystopian adventure and a nuanced study of relationships, motherhood, identity, and what it takes to keep children safe. The novel opens in medias res with Mim literally plunging her hands into hot water as she reels from the news that her engineer husband, Ben, has gone missing from a controversial overseas mining project. Desperate and unmoored, Mim soon finds herself on the run with her two children – soccer-loving eleven-year-old Essie and six-year-old Sam – as she tries to find her husband while evading government surveillance.
Ben’s story, that of a male geologist who vanishes while working on a shadowy project, is one that would take centre stage in another kind of narrative. Here, while the shock waves of his disappearance ripple out to his family, jolting Mim into frantic action, he remains almost a MacGuffin with the focus squarely on Mim, Essie, and Sam. In this way, The Mother Fault explores the angles that are often sidelined in more traditional, blockbuster-style apocalypse narratives. Women are at the heart of this story, and Mildenhall’s narrative is less preoccupied with showy heroics than it is with grim, marvellous reality.
Mim is a vivid creation, full of ‘prickle and bluster’. A hydrogeologist who finds it ‘calmed her anxiety to speak in epochs’, Mim crackles with rage, fear, and a deep-rooted sense of guilt, providing a nuanced and uncomfortable vision of motherhood. Spiky and determined, Mim makes impulsive decisions without allowing herself to think through the consequences. It seems she must always be moving forward, even if she doesn’t know where she’s going.
Unlike the deep time of geology, the action unfurls at hyperspeed and pauses only in the liminal moments between decision and potential disaster. As Mim drives along a backroad at dawn, she muses: ‘This is a nowhere space. Left but not yet arrived, where she does not have to make plans, or think, or try to make sense. Just drive. Watch those kilometres click, each one, a tiny space to breathe.’ Later, aboard a boat, she wonders ‘how long they could stay, suspended between places, out of time’. The ending, when it comes, feels both surprising and inevitable; the suggestion from novelist Toni Jordan that Mildenhall alludes to in the author note was clearly a good one.
The Mother Fault is reminiscent of works by Margaret Atwood, James Bradley, John Lanchester, and Meg Mundell with echoes of Charlotte Wood, Aldous Huxley, and even of convict Mary Bryant’s courageous escape attempt. As in her accomplished début novel, Skylarking (2016), which told a fictionalised version of a historical event, author and podcaster Mildenhall offers complicated, believable characters against an atmosphere of rising tension and menace. Both novels are imbued with a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, though in The Mother Fault this is tempered with rage and solastalgia. In a coastal town where her family used to spend the summer, Mim recalls ‘an uncomplicated love of the sea. Now, it is tinged with melancholy.’
Mildenhall has an excellent ear for dialogue. Fraught conversations between Mim and her mother and combative older brother are particularly resonant, as are the unnerving ones she has with people from the Department. A tense encounter with police in what was Queensland is also handled deftly. As Mim reflects, ‘At least their methods still seem old school, their standover tactics more Keystone cop and less Stasi.’
From exhaustion to anxious constipation and a particularly nasty foot injury, Mildenhall’s narrative is grounded in the physical. She also demonstrates some striking turns of phrase. At one point, Mim wants to ‘push her thanks into [her friend] Heidi’s bones, have her feel Mim’s relief’. Later, driving along in the ‘slumbering darkness’, she imagines the car as ‘a tiny cocoon of light, barrelling along in the dark’. When her children take a moment to play when she wants them to help her with something, she finds herself ‘all froth and indignation’.
As she demonstrated in Skylarking, a novel that explored the bond between two girls growing up in an isolated lighthouse community, Mildenhall depicts children and teenagers particularly well: Mim’s delicate interactions with Essie are a highlight. Essie’s blunt moral absolutism also allows her to chastise Mim for her generation’s inaction on major climate issues. The questions Mildenhall’s characters raise around the ethics of choosing to have children in an era of climate change are also particularly resonant now.
Reading intelligent dystopian fiction is an unsettling experience in 2020. In an article about the genesis of The Mother Fault, Mildenhall describes how she tried to imagine scenarios that could lead to the Australia she depicts, ‘and then this year along came a pandemic. So neat, I wish I’d thought of it earlier.’