Title: Like Mother
Author: Cassandra Austin
Genre: Fiction; Thriller
Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia
Published: March 2021
Favourite quote: “Secrets, lies and crying babies, everyone has a breaking point”
It’s been a day since I finished reading Cassandra Austin’s gripping novel, Like Mother, and my heart has yet to return to its normal rhythm. Although Austin’s novel is not a thriller, the thumb indents I’ve left on the pages are a testament to the captivating and suspenseful nature of the novel.
Set in rural Australia in 1969, Austin’s novel takes place over a single day that dredges up ghosts from the past and confronts demons of the present. Louise, exhausted from the housework and duties placed on her while her husband, Steven, is on the road selling refrigerators, has finally settled her baby, Dolores, down for a nap…or did she? When Louise checks on Dolores, the baby is gone. While Louise barricades the house and starts to tear the rooms apart to find her daughter, she is hounded by her critical mother, nosey aunts, curious police officer, and sympathetic doctor.
At first, I thought I knew exactly what had happened to Dolores, but the changing perspectives from Louise, to her husband, and her mother, made me doubt my assumptions. No one is innocent, and no one completely trusts the other. Over the entire day, all the secrets and distrust each character has attempted to smother reaches a boiling point. While the missing baby is the big mystery, several other plotlines play out. Louise’s mother, Gladys, the perfect housewife that Louise attempts to live up to, hounds her daughter all day over the phone, banging on Louise’s front door, and sending other people to check on her. Although Gladys gushes about Louise to everyone, she never discusses her younger daughter Elizabeth’s death and the suspicion lingering around Louise’s role. Gladys’s initial refusal to address the past adds to the anxiety of discovering what happened to Dolores.
While most characters are concerned about Dolores and Louise, Louise’s husband was primarily concerned with himself…and what he must confess to his wife. Steven’s perspective breaks the tension of worry about Dolores and redirects the sympathy to Louise, his unsuspecting and faithful wife. The sympathy for Louise is also assisted by Louise’s perspective which reveals that she is haunted by her past miscarriage and the continuous fear she feels about losing Dolores. Her fear is instantly shown by constantly touching, watching, and sleeping with the baby. And today, her biggest fear seems to be becoming a reality.
While Like Mother is set in the 60s, the themes of the women’s role, loss, and expectations of perfection are just as applicable today. Until the date was mentioned in the novel, I did not differentiate between the time it was set and now. The plights and pressure placed on women to conform and fulfil their roles to perfection—whether that is of the perfect housewife and mother, the perfectly balanced mother and worker, or the perfect silent object of the male gaze—still plague the world today. This novel perfectly winds up and explodes those expectations, from which it feels Louise will never escape – perhaps that is why I was so anxious, because I recognise the hopelessness of those pressures and, like Louise, my fear of failure in the face of these pressures is great.
Cassandra Austin’s fictional novel explores the pressures of unattainable perfection placed on women. Witness as the madness of the day unfolds and discover the mysteries and assumptions that have been brewing for years. Like Mother will captivate readers with its eerily quiet Australian town and thrilling plot.