In You Be Mother, Meg Mason has infused her domestic drama with humour, charm and a sense of longing that lingers well beyond the final pages. Jetting off from Heathrow and landing in Sydney, the book takes a cast of believably flawed characters, and follows the threads of small decisions and their sometimes devastating consequences. But the drama doesn’t arise from romantic love. Instead it comes from the mother-daughter bond, and the power of close female friendship to both harm and heal. An entirely relatable page turner.
Abi has landed in Sydney with her three-week old son in tow and no idea what the future holds. Behind her in London is all that’s left of her family: her self-destructive mother and the depressing former council flat they shared. Her baby’s father, Stu – an Aussie architecture student who swept into her life during his few months as an exchange student – is woefully unprepared for fatherhood. His officious mother Elaine is terrifyingly judgemental. And although Stu’s father, Roger, is shaping up to be a quiet ally, it’s not until Abi meets the well-to-do, charming and high-handed Phyllida that things improve. As Phil and Abi grow closer, it seems like the older woman is the mother figure Abi longs for.
But when the chips are down, is Abi really part of the family? And what happens when Phil finds out her full backstory?
It’s hard to believe this assured work is a debut novel. But Mason – a memoirist, journalist, regular ELLE contributor and sometime Agony Aunt – understands the complexities of human behaviour. In Abi, she has created a fragile, lonely figure – with a core of real strength. Even flaky boyfriend Stu – who in less assured hands could have wandered off the page and into stereotype – has complicated and believable human flaws.
There is a real sense of the class divide here, too. Abi, we’re told, speaks in an accent that isn’t “uncut Croydon”. She “adopted it as a matter of survival when she started at a girls’ grammar on the other side of the river”. Even in Sydney, class, wealth and status still very much hold sway. From the start, Phil’s snobbish, upper-crust allusions set out a view of the world drawn from a background of privilege – also marked by her accent. Which, she explains to the perplexed Abi, is a legacy of growing up in “the east”:
“Oh, like the Emirates or whatnot?”
“The eastern suburbs, dear. Rose Bay.”
Abi embodies a new generation moving beyond these outdated cultural norms, while still nodding towards the struggles faced by those born into disadvantage – and the millennial gentrification of once working class urban areas.
At its core, this book transcends class by exposing the often-times lonely, under sung role of mothers. Mason’s book, is, all told, a love letter to motherhood in all its complexity. An impressive debut novel that finds the biggest drama in the smallest of actions.
About the author
Born in New Zealand, writer Meg Mason began her career at the Financial Times in London before switching to The Times to write on lifestyle, parenting and humour. After relocating to Sydney, she began writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Russh, the British Medical Journal, Cosmopolitan and GQ. She now writes regular features and the popular ‘Mum vs. World’ column for Sunday magazine. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two daughters.