Matilda is Missing is narrated by Barry Harrison, a pensioner from a typical working class suburb in Melbourne. As the book opens we learn that Barry’s wife Pat is struggling to cope with the loss of access to her grandchildren after her son’s marriage collapses. At the same time Barry inherits some documents from an old friend of his, Frank Brooks, who was a judge in the Family Court. Frank believes he made a mistake in a case he presided over and, knowing he is dying, thinks Barry will know the right thing to do and so arranges for the case files to be passed on. Barry has no clue why Frank chose him to deal with the matter but he is not the sort of bloke to shirk a duty so he starts to review the documents. As he does so the troubling story of Garry Hartshorn and Softie Monaghan and their struggle for their daughter Matilda unfolds.
I’ll be up front and say this is not the sort of book I would normally read. I was wary of comparisons in the book’s own marketing material to the works of Jodi Picoult as I’ve read a couple of those and found them too manipulative of reader emotions and opinions for my taste (to me they have an air of the author pushing the reader to be in a flood of tears by the end and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you). However, when I signed up for the Australian Women Writers challenge I opted to dabble in genres beyond what I typically read and I chose Matilda is Missing as one of the “out of my comfort zone’ books. In the end I had a couple of misgivings about it but overall there was much more to like than I anticipated.
One of those misgivings concerned the contrivance used to make Barry the teller of this particular story. Aside from questioning the legalities of such a handover of documents (one component in particular is illegal where I live) it was a little too convenient to be wholly believable that the court documents would include a series of taped sessions with a psychologist that were perfectly ordered and complete in the details they provided about the histories and shared life of the two main characters. But while I’d have preferred some other method for enabling Barry to be the narrator, I think Overington made a great choice in using him for the role as the novel did need to be told from the perspective of an outsider to the central relationship. He was far enough removed from the heart of things to allow him (and by association us as readers) some objectivity but involved enough to offer some authentic insights into the events being depicted and the emotions experienced by the various players.
Barry was also a very realistic character, often sounding like my own dad (who is a bit older but has a very similar background and philosophy to Barry’s). I particularly liked the way Overington used him to help show the generational differences in the way men display their thoughts and feelings about their families. I warmed to Barry’s laconic, pragmatic voice very quickly and wanted to give him a great big hug at the end when he took a practical approach to his own family’s problems. My dad would approve too.
The couple at the heart of the story are also realistically depicted, as is their tale of misguidedly getting together. I know some people whose lives have panned out exactly as they planned when they were eleven, but I know a lot more (myself included) who have muddled their way through and often found themselves astonished at the situations they’ve gotten into. Garry and Softie fall squarely into this second category and the book does a great job of showing us how easily such things happen, irrespective of how smart the participants are or how many warning bells ring. Overington shows us why Garry and Softie either couldn’t see the disasters looming in their relationship or why they chose to plough on regardless. The plot device used is a series of taped sessions the two participated in individually with a psychologist as part of the court process and so we see two vastly different interpretations of the same events on multiple occasions and this is fascinating. Their first date for example is described truthfully by both of them but it sounds as if they are talking about two entirely different events because, as with most things in life, the truth is often a matter of perception. As a whole though the two were shown with an almost complete lack of moralising about their behaviour and choices; another benefit of the narrative device and another strong point in the book’s favour.
My only other misgiving is about the ending. The bulk of the book is an even-handed and thoughtful exploration of the fallout from family breakdown in a modern setting. Through the various scenarios depicted we see that whether you go down the route of using the Family Court or trying to sort things out amicably between the parties, splitting one family unit into two can’t result in happiness for everyone (or in many cases anyone). For me that provided enough drama but the story takes a final, fairly sensationalist twist that I found a little disappointing. Funnily enough I liked the very end which some reviewers who otherwise love the book struggle with due to its ambiguity. But life is full of such loose ends in my experience so I thought this a perfect ending to this sad but realistic story.
All in all this was a very enjoyable read with a terrifically authentic narrative voice which allowed an objective exploration of a difficult subject. Matilda is Missing manages to depict the family breakdown scenario from multiple viewpoints, including that of the often-forgotten extended family members, without demanding that readers take a side. I suppose if you had been through a similar scenario yourself you might find yourself identifying more with one party or the other, but not having been through that experience (thankfully) I found Overington’s characterisations of both Garry and Softie to be even-handed and judgement free. I eagerly gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings and recommend it to all.
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Caroline Overington is a Walkley Award winning investigative journalist and has published two non-fiction books as well as three novels to date including Ghost Child and I Came to Say Goodbye in addition to Matilda is Missing.
This is my first book counting towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 in which I am aiming to read and review 10 books by female Australian writers (actually I’m hoping for a number somehwere closer to 25 by year’s end but the offical challenge is for 10 books). I’ve opted to be a dabbler as far as genres go. I’ve no idea what genre this book belongs to (which kind of supports my premise that genre labels are silly) but in the absence of anything else will go with contemporary fiction.
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My rating 4/5
Publisher Bantam 
Length 353 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series standalone.
Source I borrowed it from the library
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