(Imported from Blogger; formatting glitches need to be fixed, August 2012)
Wendy James first novel, Out of the Silence, won the
2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book. Her latest novel, The Mistake,
has attracted considerable attention, particularly as it draws inspiration from
a real-life crime, and depicts a woman caught up in a “trial by
media”. Investigative journalist and novelist Caroline
Overington volunteered this view of the book and the case that, in part, inspired it.
Overington writes:
The new novel by Sydney writer Wendy James The Mistake
centres on an Australian woman, Jodie Evans, who at age 19 gives birth to a
baby she doesn’t want.
According to the blurb, Jodie is “scared, alone and desperate”
so she “adopts the baby out – illegally – and tells nobody.”
Twenty-five years later, Jodie is a middle-class,
middle-aged housewife with two teenagers. She’s visiting hospital one afternoon
when she runs into a nurse who remembers her, and asks about her first
Jodie explains that she adopted the little girl out. The
nurse must be suspicious because she makes a few inquiries, and can’t find any
record of the baby’s birth being registered, and before you know it, police
have been notified, the media is onto it, inquests are being held, and people
are wondering if Jodie might not have killed the child.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s very close to the
true story of Keli Lane, a Sydney water polo player who gave birth to a baby
girl, Tegan, in Sydney in 1996 without telling anyone.
Many years later, when a social worker asked Keli what
happened to Tegan, she told him that she’d given the baby to the father, but he
could find no record of the birth being registered, so he called police, an
inquest was held, the media got involved and Keli was eventually found guilty
of murder (she was so distraught when the verdict was read out, she fell to the
floor, screaming, and paramedics had to attend to her. She continues to proclaim
her innocence from prison.)
Sixty Minutes reporter Allison Langdon wrote a terrific book
about the Keli Lane case – The Child Who Never Was (2007) – in which she asked
all the fascinating questions: how did Keli manage to hide the pregnancy from
everyone, including her parents, and even her boyfriend, who was sharing her
Why did she do it not once but three times? (Two of Keli
Lane’s other secret children were adopted out.) How did she manage to leave the hospital with Tegan, hand
the child over to the father, and then go straight home, where she changed into
a white suit so she could get to a wedding? What did she do about her breast
Langdon’s was a rich and satisfying book, largely because
you knew it was all true, and yet so completely and utterly unbelievable. If
you tried to tell that story in a novel, people would think it far-fetched.
In writing The Mistake James has set herself the opposite
task: the story isn’t real, yet she has to make it believable, which explains
why some pages are given over to (fictional) press clippings, and press
releases, or comment pieces from journalists who have this or that to say about
Jodie and her missing baby.
The journos say the kinds of things that journos would say,
and so do the cops, and the lawyer, and you do get pulled along by the
That said, I so wish the character of Jodie had been drawn
with a little more energy, for at times she seems quite zoned out of what’s
going on around her.
Early in the book, for example, she gets a letter from the
nurse saying, “There’s no record of what happened to your baby, and
therefore, I’m going to have to call the police” – or words to that
She scrunches up the note and puts it in her back pocket and
carries on with what she’s doing. Her husband of more than 20 years comes home
– a man who has loved her, and cheated on her – so she tells him news that
might make a person’s head explode – “I had a baby that I never told you
about and that child is now missing” – and he basically says fine, and
goes and calls a lawyer.
The lawyer comes over, and they open a bottle of red wine
and have a bit of a chat about it, in particular about how unpleasant it’s
going to be, if the media find out.
I felt like screaming: but there’s a baby missing! Doesn’t
anyone care what happened to the baby?
Of course, you’re supposed to think that maybe Jodie already
knows what happened to her – that’s the mystery, did she kill the baby, or sell
the baby?
But even if she did kill the child, wouldn’t she be totally
out of her mind with fear of that coming out? And if she didn’t kill the child,
would she be freaking out about possibly going to prison for something she didn’t
On the other hand, it’s clear that James has a solid
understanding of the lives of teenage girls because the teenage daughter in the
book, Hannah, is a stand-out character, curious about recreational drugs, and
boys, and her own, blossoming body, always testing the limits of her mother’s
authority over her (and the limits of her principal’s patience!).
All in all, it’s well worth reading to the end, to find out
what really happened (it’s not what you think, and I won’t say more than
Caroline Overington has published several novels: her first, Ghost Child,
was an Australian bestseller, her second, I Came to Say Goodbye, was
selected as one of 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, and Australian Women’s Weekly’s
Book of the Month. Her latest book is Matilda Is Missing. Caroline lives in
Bondi with her husband and 11-year-old twins.
* * *
Several AWW participants and others have reviewed The Mistake. (Click on their names to read more.)
  • Bree: “What I really admired about this book though, apart from the well
    constructed story, the faultless pacing and the depth of the characters
    was the fact that it carefully, gently, makes you think that you know
    what has happened before it cuts you off at the knees.”
  • Brenda: “The absolutely amazing twist at the very end of this book had me
    stunned, I certainly didn’t see it coming. I would highly recommend this
    book to everyone, it was harrowing, and an absolute knock-out of a
  • Lizzy Jane “The book really captures the way the media pounces on cases like this and creates a momentum that is hard to stop.” 
  • ShelleyraeThe complexity of James’s protagonist forces the reader to consider
    their own assumptions based on appearance, class and circumstance… A stunning novel.”
  • Bernadette “The complex characterisations are one of the standouts, particularly
    Jodie Garrow who steadfastly refuses to conform to
    people’s expectations of her.”
  • Angela Savagea plot that will haunt you long after the final pages.”
Wendy James writes movingly of the perils of drawing
inspiration from real life stories on her blog: literary gnat. She also touched on
the subject in a recent interview with crime author Angela Savage. An
abbreviated extract of this interview is reprinted below (with permission).
You refer to the Lindy Chamberlain case in The Mistake in exposing the media’s
role in shaping public opinion. Were there any other real life cases or
characters that inspired the novel?
[Wendy] The novel’s initial inspiration came from the story of Keli Lane, the water-polo champion who
was recently convicted of murdering her infant daughter, Tegan. Tegan hasn’t
been seen since she was discharged from hospital with her mother in 1996, and
despite extensive police searches, authorities have been unable to locate her.
Lane  herself  maintained throughout the period of investigation
(though her story changed) that the child had been adopted out
unofficially. The case is certainly sensational, but it was the attitude
of some media — including various internet sites — that really struck me.
The focus was all on Lane’s perceived “character” —
promiscuous, secretive, ambitious, a liar — rather than the available, and
completely circumstantial, evidence. Like Chamberlain before her, Keli Lane was
found guilty in the court of public opinion even before she went to trial.

I was also very interested in the way the media and the internet treated the
parents of Madeleine McCann, the child who was abducted from a Portuguese hotel
room a few years back now. The McCanns came under a certain amount of suspicion,
as well as a great deal of criticism, not only for leaving their children
unattended, but for their subsequent behaviour. Kate McCann, her mother, in
particular, was treated very badly for not behaving as a griving mother is
supposed to behave — she was too cool, too composed for people’s liking. The
Booker Prize winning author Anne Enright even wrote a piece for the London
Review of Books called ‘Disliking the McCanns’ which was pretty shocking. It’s
hard to summarise, but it was clear that her dislike for them, for pretty
spurious reasons — looks, speech, religious beliefs, perceived attitudes —
drove her suspicions. It was very cold-blooded, and very unsympathetic. It left
a rather nasty taste in my mouth. Lindy Chamberlain was appalled by this very
obvious media bloodlust — seeing parallels with her own situation — and came
out publicly in Kate McCann’s defence.

Both [James’
first book] Out of the Silence and The Mistake have plots involving missing,
possibly dead babies. Disturbing themes, especially for anyone who’s a parent.
As a mother of four, are these themes about giving voice to your deepest fears
or exorcising murderous fantasies?
Maybe both?
No, I expect it was partly giving voice to very deep fears, but really my own
experience of motherhood has been one of relative ease (and pleasure, too, I
have to add!). I had a roof over my head, a partner, enough money to survive, I
could still work and study, I wasn’t some sort of social pariah. I was
interested in was looking at how much harder it would be to love and nurture
and protect a child if all that physical, emotional and social scaffolding
wasn’t in place… What happens to the maternal instinct if there’s nobody
looking after the mother?
Read the full interview here.
Note: The Mistake doesn’t appear to be available in
ebook format from any AWW participating e-bookstores. The ebook is available
from Booktopia, an online bookshop that regularly
hosts interviews with Australian authors. It is available in print from
bricks-and-mortar bookstores, including Abbey’s
which did the fantastic AWW window display in the wake of International
Women’s Day.