In Janita Cunnington’s second novel, Child of Mine (Bantam Penguin Random House 2018) the author again displays her knowledge of Brisbane and south-east Queensland with a setting that feels authentic and familiar. Queenslanders will recognise the humidity, the fierce storms and rain-lashed landscape, the fecund environment, and landmarks such as the Brisbane River, the Story Bridge and Mount Coot-tha which appear throughout. And while the story jumps about in time over three decades, from 1959 to 2000, the crucial incident occurs during the devastation of the 1974 floods, an event seared into the memory of anyone who experienced it.
Donna Birtles, a single mum in her twenties, and her infant daughter, Flower, live in a run-down share house with a couple of guys more interested in smoking weed and playing music than working. When the infamous flood hits and the tide begins to rise, the floodwaters creep inexorably up the walls of their rented wooden cottage, and they are forced to seek shelter with the women next door. Maggie Rowe (35, a teacher) and her mother Vera welcome in the ragtag assortment of neighbours (who are no more than strangers) and for a week the group lives together, camping on the floor and making do with tinned food and no electricity. But when the floodwaters recede and the boys move on, Donna shows no inclination to return to her home next door. In fact, she begins leaving on her own mysterious excursions, without Flower, and staying away for longer and longer periods. In Donna’s absence, Maggie cares for Flower like her own daughter that she never had. The months become years, and Flower lives a strange existence balanced between her biological mother and her new boyfriend and their hippie lifestyle, and the solid security of Maggie and Vera.
This is a fairly light and easy read but it does explore maternal love, and maternal rights and responsibilities. I thought the first half of the novel which examines Flower as a young child resonated more strongly than the second half when she is a young adult, but the character of Maggie does develop substantially towards the end of the story, and the complicated nuances of her relationship with her ageing and increasingly incapacitated mother, Vera, add depth to the story. Female characters definitely dominate in this book – their assumed roles and the expectations that others have of them.