I read Matilda is Missing in a few days. I was hooked within pages and found myself reading well into the night. I would pick it up in between times, too, snatching bite sized portions of the story while I was rushing to get ready in the morning – while the kettle boiled, before the toaster popped and while the kids printed off last night’s homework.
What surprised me most about my reading of Matilda is Missing was that I was reading it at all. If I were flicking through a newspaper or reading a magazine and I came across a story about the family court, or a grandparent’s right to access their grandchildren, or equal rights for fathers in divorce cases, I wouldn’t read beyond the headlines.
But I read Matilda is Missing.
I picked it up on a whim, curious to see what all the fuss was about (The success of Overington’s last novel, I Came to Say Goodbye, has the book world salivating over the sales potential of Matilda is Missing). I do that a lot. I pick up review copies here in the office and flick through a few pages, read a bit and then generally drop the book back on the pile. We have so many books to review. You can’t read them all.
So I picked up Matilda is Missing. I read the preface. I was interested. I read the first page, then the second, then the third. It was compelling stuff. I was won over. I popped the review copy in my bag and took it home that night.
Yes, author Caroline Overington was the social welfare reporter for The Australian newspaper. Yes, she brought to bear all of her first hand knowledge and experience of the workings of the family court. Yes, Matilda is Missing is probably based on actual cases. But her articles were informed by such things, too, and I never read them. If she were to write a brilliant article tomorrow on the subject covered in Matilda is Missing, I wouldn’t read that either. I read about a subject I have no great interest in or patience with because I was beguiled by Caroline’s skill as a novelist.
This is the power of the novel. No other medium could have induced me to sit still long enough to appreciate the difficulties facing those who have to decide who gets custody of a child in a divorce case.
Matilda is Missing contains a story within a story, narrated by the very likeable, Barry. The framing story describes the heartbreak of a grandmother, Pat, Barry’s wife, who is barred from seeing her grandchildren and covers her very public fight for access. And within this frame, when an old friend, and former Family Court Judge, asks Barry to listen to recordings of interviews with a court appointed psychologist, we have the story of Softest Sound Monaghan, known as Softie (hippie parents) and Garry Hartshorn and their fight for custody of Matilda.
There is no right way to raise a child. It is and always will be a matter of dispute. Some may seem more right than others. Some may appear to horribly wrong. But who is to say who is right and who is wrong when two ordinary people with fairly similar notions of child raising claim to be the best person to look after their child? The court must dig deeper.
Softie and Garry are interviewed in their turn and are asked by the psychologist to relate the details of their lives. A novelist knows there are no ordinary lives. As their stories unfolded I found myself being convinced that Garry was right and Softie wrong, then moments later, that Softie was in the right and Garry in the wrong. I was exposed to the difficulties faced by the Family Court in making decisions concerning custody.
Matilda is Missing is a gripping read which takes an unflinching look at the impact Family Court decisions have on children, parents, grandparents and on those making the decisions themselves. That is, Matilda is Missing examines a subject we only ever consider when it is too late.
Did you read Caroline’s last novel, I Came to Say Goodbye? What did you think? Leave a comment below…
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.