20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Cassandra Austin, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 294 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

OK. I’m going to make a bold claim here. Cassandra Austin’s Like Mother is the best novel I have read so far this year. It’s literary fiction of the finest order, but it’s got the page-turning quality of a psychological thriller and brims with brilliant characters that feel real enough to step off the page.

The setting is small-town Australia. The year is 1969. And Louise Ashland, a new mother, is at home alone with a crying baby.

The kitchen is agitated. The phone cord sways slightly and the baby’s cries rend the room. Louise hasn’t moved since hanging up. Dust motes sparkle and drift as Lolly’s cries continue to shrill the air and Louise clamps her hands over her ears, not that this helps. What is she doing?

Set entirely in the space of one November day — four months after man first landed on the moon — this fast-paced novel charts what happens to Louise when she realises baby Delores (“Lolly”) has stopped crying but she can’t remember where she put her down. She’s not sleeping in her cot, she’s not in the lounge room, in fact, she doesn’t seem to be anywhere at all.

Three interleaved storylines

Louise’s rising panic and sense of disorientation is undercut by two interlinked narrative threads, that of her over-protective mother, Gladys, who lives nearby, and that of her husband, Steven, a philandering refrigerator salesman who is on the road a lot (his office is an hour’s drive away), unaware that his wife is struggling to adjust to new motherhood.

These separate narrative threads, all told in the third person in alternate chapters, provide an intimate look at three troubled characters, all interdependent on one another yet keeping secrets close to their hearts. A coterie of colourful aunts, a family GP and a friendly policeman, all of whom get caught up in the day’s proceedings, adds to the dramatis personae.

As Louise’s day unfolds in a blur of anxiety and alarm, fending off her mother’s constant phone calls and knocks on the door, Steven is being set up by his young secretary, who knows he’s been having an affair and now wants him to pay her $1,000 to keep her mouth closed.

Meanwhile, Gladys, who is back sleeping with her ex-husband and the local doctor, is worried that her daughter is not only trying to cut her out of the picture but might possibly pose a threat to Lolly. Such dark thoughts, it turns out, are rooted in a tragic event from the past…

Clever structure

Like Mother is a cleverly structured, expertly plotted novel, one where the pace is lightning fast thanks to cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.

The 1960s setting gives it a certain domestic vibe in which women are the homemakers, men are the breadwinners and having mod-cons (such as a refrigerator) is the height of sophistication.

Through this prism, it explores the tense, almost oppressive relationship between a mother and daughter, and what happens when a son-in-law gets in the way.

As layers of the past are slowly peeled back and family secrets are revealed, the story takes on a darker undertone as the truth becomes exposed at the most inopportune time. And while the ending is a happy one, there’s something about the way the threads are tied up that didn’t quite make sense to me.

Still, as a portrait of a new mother under stress (and perhaps losing her mind), it’s a brilliantly rendered account of how tough it can be to hold it all together and to put up a facade when everyone around you is expecting great things.

This one deserves to win awards. I hope it gets shortlisted for many.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I received a review copy of this back in February (the book was published in Australia on 30 March), but it’s taken me a few months to get to it!

10 thoughts on “‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin”

  1. It does sound good – it’s very easy to panic about babies. I don’t quite agree about the 1969 vibe, it was a transition time from the 1950s when most mothers were stay at home. By the end of the 60s young married women weren’t so readily giving up their jobs. You don’t mention a location except small-town – it isn’t situated anywhere in particular?

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    1. It’s not place specific… I don’t think it needs to be because it’s essentially a domestic novel… but the town they live in is called “Benalong” and I can’t find that on a map anywhere. In my head it was somewhere in regional NSW.

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  2. 1969? I had a fridge, all my friends had a fridge, all their parents had a fridge. My parents had one from when we first arrived in Oz in 1962.
    A dryer? That was different. That would have been luxury and I was rapt when my MIL gave us one for Xmas in 1973.
    What we didn’t have in small-town Australia was a phone. Our parents had them, but newlyweds didn’t. Not in the flats we rented, nor the houses we rented and neither did our friends, not until we had a house of our own. It cost an arm and a leg to have them connected, even more if there hadn’t been one in the house previously.

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    1. From what I can gather from this book, refrigerators weren’t very common on farms and this is where Steven’s target market is… he’s on the road so much visiting farmer’s wives to sell them the latest fridge/freezer model. Mention is made of updating Louise’s existing fridge but the cost is prohibitive and she has to decide whether she’d rather spend the money on a holiday.

      Re: phones, not everyone in this book has a phone but Louise and her mother have one, partly explained by the fact that it’s one way for overbearing Gladys to keep tabs on her daughter. Reference is made to neighbours asking to use her phone.

      (Funnily enough, my maternal grandparents, who lived in suburban Melbourne, did not get a phone / landline until the early-1990s!)

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      1. Hmm, well, maybe so. I remember visiting a farm in Clare SA in 1969, and they certainly had a fridge. I remember being more appalled that I could only have a bath in two inches of water! But that may not have been representative.

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  3. Thank you for this considered and insightful review! Unlike a piece of music, or a film, or even a painting which people can stand in front of together, the reading of a book as a piece of art is a solitary experience – I can never know about the journey people take with my words. So to read something like this is such a gift. Thank you.

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    1. Hi Cassandra – always a thrill when an author drops by to leave a comment. Thanks for writing such a great novel. As you can tell, I really enjoyed it. Hope you are working on something else, be great to see what you come up with next.

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