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The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

To any reader who happens to be a parent, and probably most non-parents, the premise of Jessamine Chan’s debut novel will land with the sickening shock of a coward’s punch. A new mother, Frida Liu, exhausted, anxious and bewildered, leaves her baby alone for more than two hours, is tracked down by police who were alerted by a neighbour, and immediately loses custody. Even before the authorities place Harriet in her father’s care and Frida begins pin-balling between lawyers and social workers, she is bereft and befuddled, her husband Gust having left her for a young, wealthy ex-dancer, Susanna, shortly after Harriet’s birth.

The reader is invited to conduct a kind of character study; to assess, based on their own views of parenthood, responsibility and fairness, whether or not what initially happens to Frida is her fault. Her decision-making faculties do seem faulty, notably when she initiates a couple of ill-advised sexual encounters with a friend, but it’s clear that her “lapse in judgement” (the word “mistake” doesn’t signify enough contrition, Frida is told) has kicked off a chain reaction from which she might never reclaim her parental rights.

The novel takes a brilliant, absurdist right turn when the school of the title turns out to be a real place, to which mostly women, and just a few men, are sent when their parenting is deemed by the authorities to need correction. Frida’s classmates’ offences range from inadequate household childproofing to failing to vaccinate to sharing a tantrum on Facebook. Helen, the mother of a teenage boy, was reported by her son’s therapist for “coddling”.

The syllabus is bizarre, with stunt children – just toddlers, and all girls – being brought forth and matched by ethnicity to the mothers, who will use the children in their training. Initially there is shock, dismay and a hint of rebellion from the women, who had thought they were about to be reunited with their own children. Then they are baffled – whose children are these, anyway?

There is a hook here that I defy any reader to detect in advance, and discovering it reminded me of Karen Joy Fowler’s 2014 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which also has a devastating take on parental exceptionalism. To say more about the tools and techniques used to school the women would be to give away too much of Chan’s brilliant vision of a place, and a social climate, where people are treated like purebred puppies in training, destined to pass or fail based on the most rigid of checklists. Hug a crying child for more than three seconds: points off. Take care to speak to your toddler, as Frida does, “in the soft, pleasing pitch of a customer service representative.”

Every tiny interaction between adult and child is recorded and analysed, and instructions are explicit and definitive: “The mothers must narrate everything, impart wisdom, give their undivided attention, maintain eye contact at all times.” Later in their rehabilitation, the women are told, “A mother is a shark. You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” Most of all, the women are instructed to repeat, over and over, “I am a narcissist. I am a danger to my child.”

All the while, Frida feels the distance between herself and her real child growing. She is only allowed sporadic phone calls as the months pass, and has no one to turn to as Gust and Susanna feed Harriet a low-carb diet, enroll her in a Montessori school, and conceive their own child. But at the school, loneliness and sorrow are forbidden – mothers should find everything they need in the act of mothering.

By now you’ll have the gist of The School for Good Mothers: blisteringly imaginative, heartbreaking, clear-eyed as to how humans fail themselves and each other, archly observant of gender roles in parenting and, perhaps, of the totalitarian tilt of American society during the past decade. As this review is written, it seems settled law on women’s reproductive rights in the United States is to be overturned. If Jessamine Chan could produce a debut this rich, excoriating, unforgiving, and blackly comedic in a time when the notion that women have a right to bodily autonomy was still being upheld – I cannot imagine what her remarkable creative mind will yield next.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

Penguin Random House New Zealand


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