Frida Liu had a very bad day. But in this dystopian universe, only slightly removed from our own, having a very bad day can be the end of the life you love. She leaves her crying daughter Harriet at home – just briefly, just to get a coffee – and then to run to the office, and then… by the time she returns home, the neighbours have called the police. Before she has time to catch her breath, she’s placed under state surveillance.
Her ex-husband and his new wife (the one he cheated on her with while pregnant and abandoned her for shortly after Harriet was born) assume custody of Harriet while Frida awaits her fate. In addition to the surveillance, she must attend supervised play sessions with Harriet. But it’s no good – she’s determined an unfit mother. The adjudicators who watched the footage felt that her crying, meant to show repentance, seemed to be in self-pity. And so she has the option to go to the school for good mothers, a one-year program in which they will transform her ‘from the inside out.’
‘Frida begins to weep. She needs to tell the judge about the house of her mind in the house of her body. Those houses are cleaner now and less afraid. She would never leave Harriet like that, not again.’
Soon after the mothers arrive at the residential program more like a prison, they are presented with AI dolls, created to resemble their own flesh-and-blood children. These proxy children with ‘the new-car smell, the faint click…, the chips in her eyes,…her fingernails that never grow.’ They will act as spies, ‘collecting data.’
‘They’ll gauge the mothers’ love. The mothers’ heart rates will be monitored to judge anger. Their blinking patterns and expressions will be monitored to detect stress, fear, ingratitude, deception, boredom, ambivalence, and a host of other feelings.’
There’s a growing undercurrent of despair throughout the novel, as the women are systematically stripped of their identities and institutionalised. What can only be described as psychological torture is metered out to these mothers – their one privilege of being allowed a 10-minute phone call on Sundays with their children is retracted for the most minor of infractions. Not all of their group can – or will – survive it.
Frida’s experience as a woman of colour and the daughter of immigrants factors heavily into her feelings of guilt and grief at the suffering her parents are enduring during her sentence. Her ethnicity also factors into the way she is assessed at the home; judged to be too passive, too cold, too detached, reflecting implicit racist stereotypes that work to her disadvantage as she desperately tries to prove herself a fit mother.
This novel takes a little while to get going, but I read the latter half almost in one sitting. It simmers with a quiet rage; a world somewhere between our current one and not so many steps from Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. Particularly with current US events and the Texas legislation to make abortion almost completely illegal, patriarchal claws continue to sink into our lives to deprive us of basic choices. It’s important to keep fighting the good fight – otherwise these fictionalised visions of a dystopian US might become closer to our reality.
The School for Good Mothers will be published in January 2022. Add it to your Goodreads TBR!