The “wrongfully accused person” plot is terrifying because it dramatizes two extremely common scenarios: being misunderstood and being ignored. At the heart of every movie like “The 39 Steps” or book like “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a guy protesting that the world has gotten it all wrong, and if everyone would just listen to him for one second…
Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, “The School for Good Mothers,” is a crafty and spellbinding twist on this genre. Frida Liu is a 39-year-old single mother with a respectable but dull job at the University of Pennsylvania and an 18-month-old daughter named Harriet. In a spell of insomnia-induced irrationality, Frida leaves Harriet home alone for two hours and is hauled into police custody for child abandonment. The accusation isn’t technically wrong; she really did leave Harriet unattended. The problem is that when Frida tries to repent, every word and gesture of her subsequent innocent behavior is interpreted by the authorities as evidence of depravity.
A period of surveillance follows the abandonment. Men from Child Protective Services install cameras in every room of Frida’s home except the bathroom; her calls and texts are monitored and analyzed. When she asks why a court-appointed psychologist is filming their session, she is admonished for being paranoid. When she admits that she isn’t raising Harriet to be bilingual — Frida’s parents are Chinese — a social worker asks why Frida is “denying Harriet a crucial part of her heritage.” When she hugs Harriet after a supervised visit, she receives a lecture about “boundaries.” Frida’s lawyer advises her not to confide in parents or friends or co-workers. Anyone could be an informant.
At a court hearing a judge reviews the evidence of Frida’s misbehavior and places Harriet in the custody of Frida’s ex-husband. As for the bad mother herself, she is sentenced to one year at an experimental rehab facility where the tiniest infraction — a stolen puff on a cigarette, an illicit glug of beer — can lead to permanent termination of parental rights. At rehab, the broccoli is soggy, the underwear is government-issued and the cameras are everywhere.
“This isn’t a women’s prison,” Frida tells herself, marching in boots and a jumpsuit to her mandatory parenting class. Sure, there are guards and an electrified fence and you can’t leave and the sound of women crying is so common that it registers as white noise, but it’s not a prison. (It’s a prison!)
The crimes of the other mothers include letting a kid play alone in the backyard, inadequately childproofing an apartment, testing positive for marijuana use (the mom, not the kid) and “coddling,” which is considered “a subset of emotional abuse.” Each woman is issued a robotic child with whom she must practice her parenting skills, such as hugging for an appropriate length of time, maintaining unbroken eye contact and kissing cheeks and foreheads but never lips (too “European”).
The robots are powered by a foul-smelling blue goo. Like real children, they eat and cry and vomit. Unlike real children, they harvest and transmit data about their assigned mommies back to the prison instructors. This data reveals that Frida’s kisses “lack a fiery core of maternal love.” Frida wishes she could tell the instructors to kiss her fiery core, but there’s no point; it would be just another shovelful of dirt from the grave she’s haplessly digging.
Chan poses a grim question: What happens to a person when she has no way to beat an intolerable system and no way to escape it? There is no winning in rehab, only endless ways to lose. On kitchen duty, Frida is berated for inefficiently quartering grapes and wielding her knife with a “hostile grip.” When a group of substandard dads is imported from a sibling facility, Frida hits it off with an inmate and gets slapped on the wrist for “flirtatious body language.” On the rare occasions when she is permitted contact with her daughter, Frida must follow a rigid script. All of this is enough to send any mother into a spiral of madness, or an even more elaborate shape — a Möbius strip of insanity, an octahedron of derangement.
Meanwhile, Harriet lives with her father, Gust, who ditched Frida during pregnancy for an independently wealthy 28-year-old Pilates instructor named Susanna. Susanna is a demon of perfected domesticity: resplendent in silk peasant dresses, serving homemade gluten-free apple crumble, singing the praises of plant-based diaper cream, posting photos of Harriet on Instagram with the caption #bliss. Frida’s parents refer to Susanna as “the evil egg” and “the white ghost.”
The novel’s themes of repression and technology recall Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”; its sense of doom and violated autonomy, the work of Philip K. Dick, if Dick had gobbled fewer amphetamines; its pervasive air of injustice, Harrison Ford as Dr. Kimble in “The Fugitive,” pounding his fist on an interrogation room table as a detective with disturbingly sculpted hair says, “Book him.”
But Chan’s novel is too original to come off as a purée of influences. She renders Frida’s cornered-animal consciousness in clipped and twitchy prose so effective that I had to pause every few pages to unclench my fists. At rehab, Frida is taught that she has committed a sin not of parenting but of ontology: In conceiving of herself as a daughter, lover, employee and citizen rather than mother alone, she has violated a new code of maternal ethics. The corrective action she must take, then, is to slaughter all superfluous selves.
Chan’s ideas are livid, but her prose is cool in temperature, and the effect is of an extended-release drug that doesn’t peak until long after you’ve swallowed it. One test of speculative fiction is whether or not it gives you nightmares, and when mine came — I knew they would — it was a full week after I’d finished this time bomb of a book. “This is a safe space, ladies,” a faceless captor was telling me in my sleep. Terrifying.