I’d heard good things about The Good Mother by Rae Cairns, which I believe was previously self-published and shortlisted for the prestigious 2021 Ned Kelly Debut Crime Fiction Award.
I was a little worried however. I’m a bit ‘over’ books about motherhood in general… not being a mother myself means I often struggle to relate to the whole there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect my kids thing. And then there’s mention of Belfast and the IRA and even though that’s not exactly historical fiction I tend to stay away from anything that delves too deeply into politics or well…. history.
But, I needn’t have worried as I read this book in a sitting. Its pacing is fantastic and plot complex without being unwieldy. And the mother in question, Sarah, is relatable and likeable.The Good Mother
by Rae Cairns
Published by HarperCollins - AU
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
Sarah Calhoun is a regular Sydney soccer mum, but she's keeping terrifying secrets from everyone she loves . . . and her past is about to catch up with her.
When two men from Northern Ireland hunt her down, she's forced to return to Belfast to testify at a murder trial. Caught in the crossfire of an obsessive policeman, driven by a disturbing past, and a brutal IRA executioner, Sarah faces an impossible choice: lie and allow a killer to run free, or tell the truth and place her children in the line of fire.
With her family and innocent people at risk, Sarah must find the courage to fight for the truth. But righting the wrongs of the past just might cost her everything . . .
The book opens with Sarah at home with her three children and she comes across as the quintessential helicopter parent. She’s worried about the length of her oldest daughter’s school uniform and relieved her 16 year old son Riley is too busy with soccer to have a girlfriend.
It seems a little OTT but we soon learn why and I liked that Cairns doesn’t spend a lot of time on preliminaries. We learn that Sarah’s own experience in Belfast in the late 1990s as a youth worker ended badly and she’s worried there’ll be repercussions for Riley when he’s offered a chance to attend a prestigious soccer camp in Ireland.
It’s mentioned in the backcover blurb so I’m not offering any spoilers when I mention that Sarah’s worst fears are realised – Riley’s safety is threatened and she’s forced to revisit her past.
We learn that Sarah didn’t just witness a killing before fleeing Belfast, but had inadvertently become involved with the killer(s) themselves. I liked the way Cairns revisited the young boys with whom Sarah worked, all of these years later – to see how their lives had been impacted and whether they’d changed… or succumbed to what had previously been inevitable. And I assume that Cairns’s own experience as a youth worker in Ireland in the late 90s brings authenticity to the narrative.
There’s a strong theme of family loyalty here – in Sarah’s relationship with her children, and her father (Max’s) to her and her family. As well as Sarah’s former love interest and the moral dilemma he constantly faced – committed to upholding the law but supporting a brother intent on subverting it and believing he is justified in doing so.
I liked the way Cairns portrays the relationship between Sarah and ex-husband Evan; the life they lived together and the end of their marriage. It felt very real… and surprisingly healthy. I also liked Irish cop Alec Stone who’s seemingly obsessed with bringing down those involved in the murder(s) years before, and initially quite merciless in his pursuit of Sarah to help him.
I would have liked a little more information about Sarah and her father Max. She’s forced to call on him here after years of estrangement. We learn he’s ex-army so a logical choice but I wasn’t sure of his connection to Ireland or (young) Sarah’s desire to work there. She mentions her grandfather played soccer for Ireland but I possibly missed detail about her family migrating to Australia… either way more about his antipathy to her working there and his military history might have added some additional context.
I enjoyed this read, which was less about motherhood and politics and The Troubles than it was about the ethical and moral dilemmas. That’s the strength of this meaty read for me and Cairns does a great job at placing us in Sarah’s head… debating her options and their consequences and often having to choose the least undesirable.
The Good Mother by Rae Cairns will be published in coming months by Harper Collins.
I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher for review purposes.