fracturedDawn Barker’s novel is an insightful and devastating story of mental illness.

Anna and Tony Patton seem to have it all: great careers, a loving marriage and their beautiful new baby son, Jack. But six weeks after Jack’s birth, he and Anna go missing and Tony is plunged into a nightmare. As he desperately searches for his family, it becomes clear that he has been overlooking just how hard life with a newborn is for Anna. And when Anna is found, he discovers there is too much he doesn’t understand.

Anna’s diagnosis of post-natal psychosis ravages her as well as her family. Tony blames himself for not paying close enough attention and Anna’s mother, Wendy, blames herself for keeping secrets of her own. Tony’s parents, Ursula and Jim, do their best to support their son and his wife, but Ursula can’t help thinking Anna has done something unforgivable.

Fractured is an extraordinary exploration of mental illness and grief told with great confidence and compassion. The before and after structure of the novel creates a valuable tension: each before chapter offers a clue to Anna’s illness and Tony’s apparent obliviousness, while the after chapters show the heartbreaking consequences of both conditions. In conjunction with the flashback style of the narrative, the novel’s multiple viewpoints allow the author to explore what it is like to experience a mental illness and how people cope when a tragedy results from it.

Barker’s writing shines as she portrays how grief and concern influence each character’s reactions to Anna and Jack’s disappearance. Tony’s frantic search for answers and his unwavering belief in his wife imbue the novel’s opening with suspense and a growing sense of horror:

He stood at the top of the cliff, swaying with the wind, and wondered what it would feel like to fall, and whether he would survive. What had Anna been doing here? Was she running, afraid? He squeezed his fists tightly then stepped back onto the path. He was losing his mind; Anna and Jack needed him to take charge here, to help them.

The scenes in which Anna struggles to cope with being the sole carer for a newborn and the cracks begin to show are emotionally fraught and realistic, right down to her frustration with Tony’s lack of support:

The first six weeks were the hardest, that’s what she had read. A part of her didn’t want to go to the doctor and give Tony the satisfaction of being right; she didn’t want this to be her problem. It was like when they were trying to get pregnant: Tony was so happy to know it wasn’t his fault. If she was depressed, it let him off the hook. The truth was that if he was at home more, if he helped her, then she wouldn’t be in this situation.

When it becomes clear what has happened, the story’s central question becomes: how could she? And while Tony loses himself in trying to figure out what he could have done differently, it is the novel’s other two mothers, Ursula and Wendy, who reflect society’s attitude to women in a fragile post-natal state. Though continuing to support Tony, Ursula cannot help but judge Anna, finding her weak and selfish:

Ursula looked away. She felt terrible saying it out loud, but she had thought about nothing else for days. She needed to protect her own family, and herself. They needed to deal with their grief, and that couldn’t happen while everyone was caught up with Anna’s drama.

Wendy, however, cannot abandon her daughter. She feels guilty for having been a single mother and for not telling Anna of her own mental health problems. And Wendy understands how difficult it can be to be a mother, how isolating and stressful; she isn’t willing to judge Anna for her actions. As most of the other people in Anna’s life turn away from her, Wendy is the person she comes to rely on most.

Dawn Barker drew on her experience as a psychiatrist to write Fractured, and has created a perceptive and sensitive story of family coping with a tragedy that is impossible to comprehend. This novel is essential reading for anyone who has been touched by post-natal mental illness, or who knows someone who has.

Dawn Barker Fractured Hachette Australia 2013 PB 352pp  $29.99

Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney: http://www.kyliemmason.com

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