Rod Jones’s debut novel, Julia Paradise, was a remarkable success. It was shortlisted for the 1988 Miles Franklin Award, was runner-up for the Prix Femina Étranger in Paris, and was translated into 10 languages. The New York Times called it “a remarkable achievement”.
Since that auspicious start Jones has published four novels, several of which have attracted award nominations and critical acclaim, but it has been 12 years since his last, 2003’s Swan Bay.
Now we have The Mothers. While we don’t know for how many of the intervening years Jones has been working on the manuscript, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn it took up most of the intervening time. It has a complex structure and is ambitious in scope. Covering three-quarters of a century and several generations of one family, it is divided into seven sections, each dedicated to a different stage in the life of one of four mothers. Starting with “Alma, Footscray, 1917”, and ending with “Anna, Cockatoo, 1990”, one can imagine that
any one of these narrative strands might have been at some point conceived as a stand-alone work.
We meet the first of these mothers, Alma, sitting in Footscray Park with her two small children. She has left her adulterous husband, but her mother refuses to take her in, and she has nowhere to go. She catches the eye of Alfred, a member of local Footscray push “The Dingoes”, who invites her to stay with him and his sympathetic mother, Mrs Lovett, with whom she finds for a time a haven.
But when, after an aggressive courtship, Alma falls pregnant to Alfred, Mrs Lovett’s sympathy is withdrawn and Alma is forced to leave to hide the family shame. She struggles to make ends meet, and eventually has no choice but to place her and Alfred’s daughter, Molly, into Brighton’s Melbourne Orphan Asylum.
This is the first of several instances in The Mothers where the failure of fathers, families and communities to support pregnant women forces the women to turn to the support of charitable organisations. Some of these experiences are better than others, but each necessarily involves the trauma of separation, a trauma that echoes through successive generations and manifests itself in various ways.
Jones is determined to give us as much of the lives of his principal characters as possible and he manages to do this in just over 300 pages by using a great deal of summary.
Things happen quickly to these people. They go from young lovers to old couples in a matter of pages. Eras come and go even faster; the Depression, for example, is ended two paragraphs after it hits.
Thankfully Jones is adept at crafting striking images that capture the essence of his characters. For example, David, a troubled boy who in the 1950s is given up for adoption and whose separation anxiety manifests itself in week-long refusals to leave the house of his doting adoptive mother, grows up over a few pages to be a young man nearing the end of high school. Jones needs to capture him at this moment in his life before moving on to the life of another young mother, and he does so with a snapshot of the young man in three characteristically compressed sentences:
He stayed home from school. He smoked his Fiestas. He fired his toy gun into the phone.
But then we find that this is not the last to be heard of David, for he reappears in “Cathy, Fitzroy, 1975”, where he becomes one of the most vividly portrayed characters in the novel.
By 1975 David is 22, studying history at the University of Melbourne, and has learnt to turn his anxiety outward, into frightening outbursts of anti-establishment vitriol and sometimes violence.
Cathy, also 22, is a would-be photographer who is living with David in a dingy Fitzroy share house. She is also carrying his child.
One cannot help but contrast this section of the novel, especially as Cathy comes upon the used needles of their housemate, Jack, with perhaps the most celebrated evocation of this milieu at this historical moment, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. The two women at the centre of these narratives are very different people. Jones’s Cathy is more naive than Garner’s Nora, who, while perhaps ignorant of the world of heroin users, is happily ensconced in Melbourne’s inner-city counterculture.
On the other hand, Cathy is at heart a country girl with more conventional values than David’s politically radical friends. But what is most different in the telling of these two stories of motherhood in mid-’70s Melbourne is how much more time we spend with Garner’s Nora. We feel we know her daily life intimately, so much so that the central drama of the novel, her romance with junkie Javo, becomes the least interesting thing about it.
While Garner’s novel feels discursive and explorative, there is an intense sense of purpose to The Mothers, and Jones has chosen a narrative pace to match this purpose. This is successful for the most part, but what is sacrificed along the way is anything that is not absolutely crucial to the story he wants to tell. This means sticking closely to the major events in the lives of these people, the moments of greatest intensity, and rushing through the rest, in the same way he chooses to pause only at major historical flashpoints of 20th-century Australia, such as the Great Strike of 1917, or the demonstrations following Whitlam’s dismissal.
Which is not to belittle the significance of what he does achieve. Jones does a tremendous job of showing how central the conditions of our arrival remain to our lives, and how the love we are shown early in life, or its absence, stays with us forever. This is a big-hearted novel, and it is an affecting tribute to generations of Australian mothers who have been unjustly treated. SH
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Rod Jones, The Mothers". Subscribe here.