Frida Liu, the 39-year-old mother of a toddler named Harriet, has a very bad day which will haunt her for the length of this novel. She is divorced from Harriet’s father, a middle-aged man called Gust who has left her for a 28-year-old Pilates instructor called Susanna. Harriet will only fall asleep, Frida explains, ‘if I’m holding her hand’. As a consequence, Frida herself has been averaging two hours sleep a night when she finally cracks and decides to leave her daughter unattended so that she can collect some papers from her work place. After her neighbours hear the child crying they call the police and Harriet goes to live with Gust and Susanna. Child protection services install cameras in all the rooms of Frida’s home except the bathroom, but her efforts to change count against her. When she begins to clean her apartment scrupulously, they question why she wasn’t able to do this before.
Frida is sent to a corrective facility for a year, where she will be taught to erase all aspects of her identity that may interfere with being a good mother. She must adopt the mantra of the institution: ‘I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.’ She insists to herself that she is not in prison, although there are guards and an electric fence to stop her escaping. The crimes of the other mothers range from ‘coddling’ (which is seen as a form of emotional abuse) to keeping six children in a hole in the ground.
Frida and the other inmates are given AI dolls that bear some resemblance to their own children to practise good mothering on. They are told to stick to scripts during calls to their children and are punished for any perceived transgression with regard to their doll children, no matter how small – not least hugging them for longer than three seconds. Reading about a wrongly accused person being punished is always frightening, but what is most disturbing about Jessamine Chan’s version is how eerily plausible Frida’s acquiescence seems. This doesn’t stop the novel from making some elegant points, particularly as Frida reflects how badly designed motherhood is: ‘Why did they have to begin with a baby?’
Although there is rage behind Chan’s writing, stylistically this is a wry, thoughtful novel.
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