In 1917, while the world is at war, Alma and her children are living in a sleep-out at the back of Mrs Lovett’s house in working-class Footscray. When Alma falls pregnant, her daughter Molly is born in secret. As Molly grows up, there is a man who sometimes follows her on her way to school.
Anna meets Neil in 1952 at her parents’ shack at Cockatoo. She later enters a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers, but is determined to keep her baby.
Fitzroy, 1975. Student life. Things are different now, aren’t they? Cathy and David are living together, determined not to get married. Against the background of the tumultuous events of the sacking of the Whitlam government, a new chapter is added to the family’s story.
The Mothers is a book about secrets. It interweaves the intimate lives of three generations of Australian women who learn that it’s the stories we can’t tell that continue to shape us and make us who we are.
The Mothers tells the stories of three generations of women in Footscray, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. Each of them struggle to survive hard times. Each is vulnerable yet strong; they all make mistakes and yet try to be good mothers.
The first narrative strand is set during the last years of the First World War. Alma has left her husband but has nowhere to go. She and her children find refuge with a kind-hearted woman, and Alma finds comfort in the arms of her benefactor’s son. However, when Alma becomes pregnant, her troubles start all over again. Her daughter Molly needs to be kept secret, and when Alma cannot afford to support her anymore, she is sent to a foundling home.
The second narrative thread is that of Anna in the 1950s. A country girl, she is seduced by her boyfriend and finds herself in a home for unwed mothers in Melbourne. Despite her determination to keep her baby, her parents refuse to support her and her baby is taken from her.
The final thread takes place in the 1970s, amidst the political turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. Cathy and her boyfriend David do not believe in marriage, but when she finds out she is pregnant she finds herself in a quandary, and under pressure from her father.
The three narratives are woven together in interesting ways, and it is fascinating to see how attitudes towards women change (and yet in many ways do not change) over fifty years. Rod Jones has said that he began the book as a memoir of his own life, and that of the women in his family, but decided to shrug off the shackles of fact so that he could invent more freely and so explore the deeper issues of the story.
The knowledge that the book was inspired by real-life women deepens the sense of poignancy and verisimilitude, and makes it a very moving testament to the strength of these women.
It reminded me of Toni Jordan's brilliant novel Nine Days which I have reviewed here.