Cassandra Austin’s debut All Fall Down was a sometimes dreamlike Australian gothic tale set in a rural country town. While it is at times a little more grounded, her latest book Like Mother, finds Austin in similar territory. An Australian country town in the late 1960s in the middle of a heatwave and a set of archetypal characters navigating a nightmarish situation.
It is 1969 and man has just landed on the moon. But Louise Ashland has other things to think about, her newborn daughter Dolores (Lolly) will not eat and will not stop crying, her husband is constantly on the road and her mother insists on interfering in her life. And then the unthinkable happens. After waking from her own sleep, Louise revels in the silence until on going to check she finds her daughter is missing. And so begins a nightmarish day of unravelling as people sent by her husband and others come to check on her and she tries to put on a façade of normality.
But this is just the driver for a more diffuse and complex tale. Austin also moves the focus to Louise’s husband Steven, a local fridge and freezer salesman who is being blackmailed by his secretary and Gladys, Louise’s mother dealing with her own secrets, her dislike of Steven, three older sisters, an ex-husband and her own failing sense of self. And beneath all of this is a tragedy which binds Louise and Gladys together. The Australian weather and landscape is depicted as harsh and unforgiving and Louise’s home becomes both her refuge and her prison.
Missing children are used commonly in thrillers to keep the pages turning. But while the pages of Like Mother do almost turn themselves this is not a thriller, it is a gothic tale of urban terror. There is an almost fairy tale quality to some of the characters – the three ugly sisters, the clumsy policeman, the well meaning doctor. But through these archetypes and in particular their relationship to both Louise and Gladys, Austin digs into deeper themes around the concept of motherhood, the relationship between mothers and their daughters and the roles that mothers are asked to play.
Like Mother is another dark but engaging novel from Austin. She manages to effectively lever off primal fear in a seemingly unforgiving setting. And with a devastating premise and some great character-driven twists, this is one that is hard to put down.