Fiona Higgins’ debut novel The Mothers’ Group (published in excellent time for Mother’s Day) follows the lives of six very different mums in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It covers some ‘dark territory’ but is no ‘misery mumoir’, writes reviewer Felicity McLean. She spoke to the author.
The Mothers’ Group is your first novel (following your memoir, Love in the Age of Drought). How did you find the shift to fiction?
Liberating. With Love in the Age of Drought, I was constrained by the truth. It was my life I was writing about—and if I didn’t tell the truth, a bunch of witnesses (including my husband) would be holding me accountable! The Mothers Group freed me up to explore themes about parenting and relationships in a really creative way, taking my ideas and storyline in almost any direction. It was such a different and satisfying experience. That said, I think the characters in the novel are all very real. In fact, it was as if this group of real people just came and plonked themselves inside my head while I was writing! And their issues are real: they’re striving so hard to be the mothers they want to be, yet so often they fail (in their own eyes, mostly) to achieve that goal. This is the experience of many mothers I know, including me.
You cover some dark territory in The Mothers’ Group, exploring issues such as infidelity, substance abuse and birth deformities. Was any of this content based in your own experiences of motherhood?
I’ve chosen to explore some of the hardest issues about mothering that people rarely talk about, that’s true. The thing about taboos is, you’ve got to give them a decent airing before you can start tackling them. But the novel is equally about love, friendship and commitment—all of which I’ve experienced intensely since becoming a mother myself. None of the content in the novel is a direct replication of my own experience of motherhood, but certainly there’s an aspect of myself in all the characters. So, for example, there’s quite a tough, brittle character in the novel called Ginie, who is almost diametrically opposed in temperament to a gentle and generous Balinese character called Made (pronounced Mar-day). Well, on a bad day in my household, I’m Ginie. On a good day, I’m Made. And I think this is the experience of many mothers—they have good days, bad days, and everything in between. The question is—can society, and can women themselves, be generous enough to accept this reality: the imperfection of the flawed mother?
Who do you see are readers for The Mothers’ Group? Fathers not just mothers? Women beyond just those with children?
While I think the book will appeal most directly to women and men who are parenting younger children, there’s plenty in it for anyone interested in human relationships and family dynamics—dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or women who are childless by choice or circumstance.
What was the last book you read and loved?
The Life by Malcolm Knox. I was hospitalised at the time, just before Christmas, so had this unexpected window to read it. I’d picked it up before but had been daunted by its style. But this time, once I was in, I was hooked. The main character—a washed-up former champion surfer, living with his mum in a retirement village—was so poignant and compelling. I found the style and language utterly engaging and, living on Sydney’s northern beaches, I felt like I’d met a few of the characters. Once I was discharged from hospital, I went out and bought copies for surfer mates of mine. And funnily enough, it’s a book where maternal power is brought to bear with devastating force. Once again, it’s all about mum!