Three generations of oppressed mothers.
Australian novelist Jones (Swan Bay, 2003, etc.) makes the burdens of motherhood central to his grim portrayal of women’s lives. Alma, born in 1892, living in an industrial suburb of Melbourne, has just left her philandering partner and, with two young children and no source of income, is desperate, angry, and “a great hater.” A charitable woman and her son, Alfred, house the family temporarily, but Alma’s life continues to unravel. Succumbing to Alfred’s advances, she becomes pregnant, and soon after her daughter Molly is born, Alfred disappears. When a low-paying job ends, Alma, victimized by the precarious economy of the 1930s, leaves 7-year-old Molly at an orphanage—its humane, nurturing environment a bright spot in the bleak novel—retrieving her after two years when Alma finds a man to care for her. Molly’s sense of a stable family, though, is short-lived: soon, Alfred returns, and Molly discovers, sadly, that her life “was a fraud,” and those she thought were her family “had lied to her and tricked her.” Molly eventually marries Percy, an engineer, whose economic prospects lift her above the penury of her childhood. But Percy, like all the men in this novel, has serious flaws: he is exacting, impatient, “a man of slide rules and design specifications.” They adopt a newborn baby, David, whose erratic, nervous disposition Molly blames on herself for failing him emotionally. David, like Molly, is the child of an unwed and abandoned woman, coerced into giving him up. He, in turn, gets his girlfriend, Cathy, pregnant. But in the 1960s, marriage seems too bourgeois for the supercilious and hot-tempered David. Yet even though he seems “unhinged” and sometimes terrifying, Cathy believes that a woman “can only be happy with a husband.”
Happiness, though, is rare and fleeting in Jones’ dark world.