The Mother Fault
The Mother Fault, Kate Mildenhall’s second novel, is a cli-fi dystopian thriller with a distinctively maternal twist. The novel envisions a totalitarian future for Australia, in which the population is microchipped with geo-locaters, a gamified app encourages citizens to “Dob in Disunity”, and dissidents are imprisoned in locked estates. Before long, the protagonist, Miriam Franklin, or Mim, finds herself among the ranks of the nonconformists and is compelled to go on the run – with her two children in tow.
At fault is not Mim but her husband, who has been working for a dubious Chinese–Australian mine in Indonesia, and who has gone missing, attracting the attention of the Department, as the autocratic government is known. When Department representatives come to question Mim, they threaten to relocate her and her children to a locked estate, which leads her to flee – first to her childhood home in country New South Wales, where a friend removes Mim’s and her children’s microchips, and then to Darwin with an old boyfriend. He agrees to take them on his yacht to Indonesia, where Mim plans on rescuing her missing husband, though the ex-boyfriend also provides a point of renewed romantic interest.
While she is ostensibly focused on her husband, Mim’s name easily slides into “Mum”, and her status as a mother is foundational to her identity, as thematised by the novel’s title. Her career as a geologist, working for the Environment Protection Authority to protect aquifers, has been fractured by motherhood. At one point, she describes her life as a dichotomy: “Before Essie. And After.” Essie is Mim’s firstborn child, now an 11-year-old with attitude. Mim is also tested by a younger son with a predilection for tantrums.
The children ground this dystopian thriller in seriocomic ways. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road may have imagined a father and son heroically struggling to survive a catastrophic future, but only Mildenhall imagines a mother on the run struggling to deal with a daughter who begins menstruating for the first time and a son who suffers from nervous constipation.
This element of maternal realism is a welcome challenge to the masculinist genre of the dystopian thriller. Australian hallmarks – a reference to the MCG, characters who say “Yeah. Nah.” (in a novel that is heavily reliant on dialogue) – also provide refreshing points of difference. True to genre, however, this action-packed page-turner comes with an overblown – and perhaps too quickly written – climax, of the kind that prompts a “Yeah. Nah.” response.
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Kate Mildenhall, The Mother Fault".
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