Title: The School for Good Mothers
Author: Jessamine Chan
Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann, Penguin Random House UK
Genre: Dystopian Fiction
Think of this book like 1984 but for mothers. Mothers who the state thinks aren’t good enough to take care of their children. Mothers who abandon and those who neglect. The ones who prioritise a career over raising their children as per a prescription. Mothers who basically do not follow rules.
Jessamine Chan’s world is that of horror, to constantly keep the reader on their toes, knowing fully well that no one is watching and yet it seems that way with every turn of the page.
You empathise with Frida Liu, a divorced mom who is trying very hard to be there for her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet. Till she abandons her for an afternoon – to get a cup of coffee, answers her email in office, and forget about her child. The neighbours hear the child’s screams and the authorities are summoned. The child’s custody is given to her ex-husband and his young girlfriend. Frida is placed under constant surveillance by the government and ultimately is sent to a state-run reeducation camp for “bad” mothers. What happens there and later makes for most of the book.
Chan’s story is chilling. It is of a world that demands perfection from mothers, while fathers are not held accountable. It is a world that constantly wants proof of women being good mothers – which means essentially that they should be perfect and self-sacrificing. They shouldn’t yell. They should always smile and love the child no matter what. They should anticipate their children’s needs and be there for them. Frida and some other women at the “school” definitely do not fit the mould. They are constantly questioning the system and that’s the other part of the story – told most subtly.
Chan’s writing is easy while making the points she does at every page. There is racism, classism – sometimes through Frida who is second-generation Asian American or in the form of other women who are Black, poor, or both. The white women are absolved of it all – they can make no mistake and when they do, they are let off easy most of the time.
There is a lot to unpack in this brilliant novel. The questions of motherhood, and what is being maternal at the core of it – what is parenting, and most importantly what the role of love is in raising a child are asked over and over again. The School for Good Mothers is perceptive, horrifying, and makes us look up and pay attention to the world we live in.