Did the dingo do it? That has been the eternal question that has existed in the nation’s consciousness for the latter decades of my existence, ever since baby Azaria disappeared at the Rock back in 1980. Initially the nation was divided as to Lindy’s innocence or guilt, as her ‘story’ seemed plausible enough. Hubby Michael was as stoic as men are meant to be, but it was his wife’s hard po-facedness that swung the pendulum against her. Where were the tears? Surely she must break at some point! It was almost an affront that she held her head high, refusing to display the emotional ‘weaknesses’ besetting womenkind, let alone a mother having just lost a new born is such distressing circumstances. The media coverage became a jittery frenzy, and this, combined with some dodgy detective-ing from the NT authorities, sealed Mrs Chamberlain’s fate. Along with everyone else, I doubted her too back then, and the courts found her guilty of a decidedly non-maternal act. We know the rest of the story, but it carried on for decades. Even a few months ago, thirty plus years on, lawyers were still lawyering over it. Events, though, in other places have impacted on the dingo’s once benign reputation, and we are all now jolly careful around them.
There is no dingo in ‘The Mistake’, it being replaced by a deceased hospital matron. Nonetheless the canker of the Chamberlain case hangs heavy over this fine novel. Instead of Wolf Creekian Uluru, the tome is set in the verdant imaginary northern NSW city of Arding (Lismore perhaps?), where the Garrows are respected McMansion owning citizens. Husband Angus has a few secrets of his own, but it is his wife that possesses the one that will potentially tear the family unit asunder. It all revolves from a long hidden indiscretion of her late teenage years. Throughout the ensuing ordeal Jodie, at least outwardly, like Lindy, retains a strong public mien, but inwardly she’s at a loss as her world collapses around her. The shadow of those desert events hang heavily, and when the media latches on she, and those she loves, are in for a bumpy ride.
Portraying a family on the slide into an abyss, James does a masterful job. The interaction between the four family members, as well as their inner workings, is deftly handled. Particularly strong is the picture we receive of the stereotypically self-absorbed teen daughter Hannah, whose parallel antics place added strain on already fracturing relationships. The only jarring notes are provided by the newspaper reports James not so deftly inserts at vital stages of her narrative. Maybe it is because that this reader largely peruses the broadsheets, but they have the feel of being decidedly ‘unjournalistic’. The particularly vitriolic piece that finally causes Jodie to melt down is a case in point. It would be hard to imagine any editor allowing it to disgrace the pages of his/her newspaper. A question could also be posed as to why the logically practical idea of calling for national assistance for information about the ‘dingo’s’ practices hadn’t been thought of earlier in the piece - or why those affected by her didn’t come forward much sooner given the case was a national talking point?
To me, as reader, it is interesting to contemplate why Wendy James, as author, took her story along certain paths the way she did – and spoilers lurk in the following. The novel stands strong without the final twist at the end. This is sort of a half way house between Jodie’s version of events and the conclusion it seems the media is lusting for. Right up until the final pages the reader is comfortable that all bases are covered, but then comes the jolt. Also, why is it necessary that Angus has to revert to old practices and have an affair with the spiky hot shot barrister who arrives from the big smoke to defend his wife? No matter how dire the situation, it seems we menfolk just cannot but resort to default position and give in to the libido, can we? He gets his just desserts! I have no criticism of James in this, just intrigued is all!
This terrific author had not crossed my radar prior to this – maybe because of the covers that seem to intimate ‘women only may enter here’. But this is quality stuff as domestic thrillers go, and I have already investigated eBay for her back-catalogue. I’ll be bidding soon!
Wendy James' Website - http://www.wendyjames.com.au/