Believe In Me: Lucy Neave's novel is an insightful exploration of what it is to be a mother.

Canberra-based author Lucy Neave. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
Canberra-based author Lucy Neave. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh
  • Believe In Me, by Lucy Neave. University of Queensland Press, $32.99.

Mother-daughter relationships are complicated. They can swing between friction and affection in the blink of an eye - which is unsurprising given how closely intertwined mothers and daughters often are. But how well do mothers and daughter know each other? How much do mothers assume, given their early powerful influence over their daughters? And how much do daughters know of the experiences that shaped the person who (often) nurtured them the most?

Lucy Neave's new literary novel, Believe in Me, is an artful, probing, tender exploration of this most intimate of family bonds.

The story is told through Bet, a young woman struggling to find herself and her place in the world. Bet is attempting to understand her mother, Sarah, by reimagining and remembering aspects of her mother's life. She tries to see life through her mother's eyes. Tries to put herself inside her mother's experiences to understand her, and also to understand herself.

Sarah grew up in a fundamentalist religious faith in upstate New York. To keep her "out of trouble" in her late teens, her mother sends her away to assist pastor Isaiah, with his holy work. Sarah is seduced by him en route to Idaho. She falls pregnant and her mother sends her to Australia to have the baby under the care of relatives.

In Sydney, Sarah's relatives drop her off to a home for unwed pregnant women where she is expected to work until her child is born then give up the baby for adoption. This is the 1970s, and it's astounding that, so recently, single young women were shamed and condemned for falling pregnant.

Sarah is very much a product of an era where women were oppressed and controlled by the patriarchy. She is doubly disempowered by her fundamentalist religious background. However, she has rare moments of power when she takes control for herself. At Bet's birth, she is helped by a midwife, Dora, who becomes a lifelong friend.

Neave cleverly interlaces Bet and Sarah's perspectives. Even when we are embedded in Sarah's journey, we are aware of Bet's presence, as this is ultimately her story. Bet pieces together her mother's life through a scrapbook of memorabilia that her mother kept, which acts a springboard into memory and Sarah's stories.

As an unreliable narrator, Bet is carried into Sarah's past, blurring the lines between mother and daughter. Bet asks: "Is what I'm doing also reducing her (Sarah) to a being that is containable, comprehensible?"

Through her mother's choices and recurrent mistakes, as well as the shared journey of Bet's childhood, the shape of Bet's identity begins to unfold.

There are many deep influences that Sarah casts into Bet's life.

Sarah loves caring for injured wildlife, stemming back to her youth in upstate New York when she rescued a fox cub and set it free. Freedom and captivity are themes often revisited throughout the novel. Sarah is very much held captive by her early experiences with religion and men. She is also injured and longs for freedom, but is unable to break free of controlling men - in fact she seems to be drawn to them.

Through Sarah, Neave delves deeply into questions of love, desire, rejection, shame, erasure, and manipulation by men. Sarah wants Bet to be strong in a way that she is not. In her own life, Sarah absolves herself of responsibility by handing control to men and God. "If you are part of an immense design, then you do as you are told." She often feels like she's "drowning in your (her) own life." And tells herself that "it's best to accept what's handed to you."

Dora also has an important impact on Bet. She often helps care for Bet and offers a contrasting perspective and philosophy on life. She's an anchor of stability and reason. She's there when Sarah is not, and she imposes structure where Sarah cannot. She also helps Bet to understand that "there had to be more than one way to ride a pony, just as there were several ways to life in the world. Sarah's way was not the only one."

This is a thoughtful and beautifully written novel. Neave threads literary devices through the narrative with great skill and subtlety. Metaphors, symbolism and motifs abound, many of them animal-based, arising, no doubt, from Neave's love of animals and her early training as a veterinarian.

Ultimately, Believe in Me is an insightful exploration of what it is to be a mother. Bet's birth was "just the beginning of a lifetime of unendurable longing on Sarah's part for the child's survival, more than that: the child's flourishing". It is also a heart-wrenching picture of what it is to be a daughter: "I tried to become a success in my mother's terms,", but "Sarah and I are linked and ... the connection is always there, even though Sarah can forget me for hours. It's an ache in the throat, a visceral longing for proximity."

  • Karen Viggers' latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
This story What it means to be a mother first appeared on The Canberra Times.