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A Review of “The Mother Fault”: Australian climate-change dystopia and the ‘Chinese bad guys’

Book cover of The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall sitting on a bed of sand.

It feels like a lifetime ago that I read Kate Mildenhall’s novel The Mother Fault, although the reality is it was just at the end of last year. Does anyone else feel like 2020 went extremely fast and slow at the same time?! I read this book because it was suggested for one of the book clubs I attend. I had not heard of Mildenhall’s work before, but as I have mentioned in previous posts – spending about eight years overseas means I have some significant cultural black holes in my knowledge.

Mildenhall’s novel is set in Australia in what feels like a not too distant future. The climate has completely changed – for the worse, and there seems to be a dictator like government in power which is referred to simply as “Best Life” and the “Department”. The facelessness of these government bodies reminds me of Orwell’s “Big Brother” whereby we never know who or what Big Brother is. Mildenhall’s descriptions of the Department and Best Life fell short for me. It was something that I felt was not explored enough and it was hard to know why the main characters were afraid of these people without having any deeper insights.

The story follows a family – Mim, Ben, Essie, and Sam. Ben is away in Indonesia on a mining site and he has gone missing. Mim has been told by the department to stay put, hand over her family’s passports, and cooperate with the Department or risk her children – Essie and Sam – being taken away. Mim eventually decides that she needs to leave and find her husband. She wants to get to Indonesia, but the only way she can get there without a passport is by boat. If I am honest, I hated Mim so much. And her children were awful. One friend and I were discussing the book and she told me that Essie and Sam made her want to never have kids (I sorta agree).

Nick, the guy with the boat, is the only character that I felt treated the children like they weren’t idiots. Mim treats Nick pretty terribly – they were teenage sweethearts and Mim plays on that to get what she wants. The story their epic journey by car and boat to Indonesia definitely is the driver of the plot, and I will say despite my dislike of most of the characters it kept me turning the pages.

One aspect of Mildenhall’s book that really frustrated me was the discussions about China and Asia in general. China is described as a superpower in the novel. They are described as all-powerful and all-knowing. Australia is forced to cooperate with China and basically follow all of China’s directives. Now, don’t get me wrong – China is a powerful country. Yet, I cannot help but feel there is some racism and xenophobia in this thinking. Here me out.

The U.S. has been a superpower since the 1950s. It really came out on top after World War Two. It has ‘forced’ Australia into every war since Vietnam. It dragged us into the ‘war on terror’ and has influenced our politics for years. When you hear about our governments wanting to make higher education more expensive or doing away with Medicare – it is North American influence. Look at the impact of the recent U.S. election in Australian news headlines. So my question is, are we only bringing China into these discussions because it is not the West? Is it because we America as our friendly Capitalist white brother? I see this trend in fiction and actual history play out again and again – if the country is non-white it is very easy to paint them as the enemy.

Now, China is not perfect. As a communist country that still competes in the capitalist free-market, it has a lot of issues and lots of reasons for us to think critically. The one-child policy, treatment of refugees from North Korea, and media control are just a few of the issues China has faced as a country. But honestly, where is the dystopian novel that actually criticises the U.S.? Why is it that in our imagined fantasies, Asian countries are the bad guys? In light of the pandemic, I feel like this is even more important to talk about. What internal biases do we hold as a country if this is our default bad guy? If something is made in China or made in India (honestly, insert any Asian country here) there is a very negative stigma around the product being – polluted, bad quality, cheaply made, etc. Now, stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere, but they do not tell the whole story. Why is it so easy for us to just dismiss Asian design, ingenuity, and style? Can we, Australia, the country that locks up asylum seekers, exports billions in coal, and blows up indigenous sacred sites (the list goes on and on), can we really throw stones here?

What I brought up here today is a larger critique and discussion that I think needs to happen in Australian society and literature. If you’re Asian Australian, I would love to hear your perspectives on this too! As always, share the reading love.