Penguin Random House, RRP $36.00, Contemporary Fiction
Spoiler alert – plot points are discussed in this review
Last Halloween, I tied four sparkling fake spiders to our gate, to let families on our street know that we’d welcome trick-or-treating. My husband decided this wasn’t scary enough, so he retrieved the plastic baby doll that belonged to our young children and tied that to the gate as well. That plastic doll, when it was in the arms of my daughters, was cute and sweet. Once the doll was attached to the fence, it became the opposite: creepy, unsettling, alarming.
The title of Amy McDaid’s debut novel, Fake Baby, brings to my mind this doll. Of course, the fake baby in the book is a doll of much grander ambition – it is made from silicone, baked and hand-painted and weighted perfectly to mimic a real baby. The doll, a Reborn worth more than $5000, is stolen by one of the main characters, Jaanvi. The doll symbolises an idea interrogated in Fake Baby: what are the differences between fakeness and reality; where are the boundaries of pretence and authenticity? The doll and the act of playing with dolls, so acceptable when we were children, ceases to be considered ‘normal’ once we are adults. What is normal, this book challenges us. What is not?
A trio of characters forms the basis for the story: Stephen, Jaanvi, and Lucas. Three people who behave in ways that seem unfathomable to others, and sometimes even to themselves. Stephen is the first character we’re introduced to, and it’s in his chapters that McDaid’s most confident writing occurs. Although the very last parts of his story feel weaker than the other two storylines, the whole book to me is carried by the confident, playful, free prose in his passages. Even when the storylines felt a touch forced, it was the zest of language that captured my attention. McDaid’s writing was never fussy or flimsy, and the comedy of the writing feels fun and natural.
Stephen’s a man battling with the memories of his father. The two other characters, Jaanvi and Lucas, are also dealing with issues around parenthood – their relationships with their parents are tense and difficult, and these painful feelings form Jaanvi’s experience of being a parent herself. She loses her son when he is nine days old, flashbacks deepening our understanding of what this loss was like in real-time. All the characters in the novel find that disappointment and hurt destroy or maim their love for their parents. In one of Lucas’s flashbacks, his mother gives his childhood puppy to the neighbours. He peers through the hedge to watch the dog grow. His mother discards a beloved family pet, and in the same way, Lucas feels discarded and forgotten as an adult. Lucas and Stephen have both been hurt by the people who created them, and this damage leaves deep scars. Lucas sums up his thoughts about mothers succinctly when he watches ducks at Green Bay beach: ‘They did such a poor job of caring for their young.’
I imagine Jaanvi would be horrified to hear this idea. She’s a mother willing to do anything to be a mother, to give love. She has the hope that all new parents have: that they won’t repeat the mistakes of their parents. Her theft of the doll may be exactly what she says – a coping mechanism, but for some this behaviour strays too far from the norm. Her husband doesn’t seem to find it comforting or healing, and their relationship suffers from the aftershocks of their loss. Edith, Lucas’s pharmacy customer, offers a counter view of mothers and parents when she says, ‘Mothers do what they can do to get through,’ and this could be what Jaanvi’s trying to do – doing what she can to get through her pain, albeit in a way that seems to be teetering on the edge of what is creepy and what is cute.
The novel seems to suggest that everyone moulds their behaviour to fit what is considered ‘normal’ by others: we put ourselves on display, and we shift and mutate our behaviour based on the response from our audience. Jaanvi’s friend Ayla performs in this way – she displays herself on social media and then can behave to please, with statistics to help her figure out what’s acceptable, and what is not. It’s the gaze of others that determines whether we are merely eccentric or if we require psychiatric care, whether we need a cocktail of drugs or if we need to be hospitalised.
McDaid’s language in the book flickers with an off-beat whimsy; words like ‘cock-a-doodled’, ‘hoed into’ and ‘hullaballoo’ pop up. There are other childlike nursery rhymes referred to at times; Stephen sings himself Twinkle Twinkle little star, Winnie the Pooh is mentioned as a potential wise sage, and offer a light touch in moments of darkness for the characters.
One scene has stayed with me, from a book packed with memorable scenes: Stephen, cradling the fake baby, singing a lullaby – rock-a-bye-baby. Two men take the doll from him, call him a ‘pedo’. Once they realise it’s a doll, they damage the doll. and burn it and break it. This behaviour feels more gruesome because the same pain, the same damage, is inflicted on real children in the same ways when they should be loved and protected. It’s this balance between grim and harsh reality and the clever playfulness of language that keeps Fake Baby ticking along, weaving through Auckland, exploring the heartbreak and the small joys of the people who live there.