Fake Baby by Amy McDaid (Penguin, 2020), 304 pp, $36
Last year was a good one for New Zealand novels that used humour to deepen our understanding of mental health. They included Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, Eamonn Marra’s 2000ft Above Worry Level (both VUP), and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (Harper Collins). And from Penguin Random House in June came Amy McDaid’s debut, Fake Baby.
An early draft of this novel won the Sir James Wallace prize, awarded to the top student in the creative writing master’s programme at the University of Auckland. This is a hugely ambitious novel for a debut writer, and instinct says that first draft underwent numerous rounds of editing on its way to becoming the final version. The effort was worth it. With Fake Baby, McDaid pulls off a bravura balancing act of near-farcical comic delivery and intensely moving content. Occasionally it teeters but mostly it holds, its primary support being McDaid’s compassion and empathy for her three main characters, Stephen, Jaanvi and Lucas, who are all in varying states of mental distress.
By opening with Stephen, ‘sixty-five years old, lover of poetry and Jesus’, McDaid plunges us into the mind that is least tethered to reality. It’s never stated, but Stephen is likely to be schizophrenic: he has been in and out of institutions for decades. When we meet him he is in the cemetery where his father is buried, about to desecrate the grave. Stephen’s mind pinballs between word associations and hallucinations but retains one unwavering conviction: his father has returned from the dead and wants to destroy them all. We can see that while Stephen is deluded about most things, he accurately remembers his father’s abuse of him, his mother and his siblings. We can also see that it’s too late for Stephen ever to be fully well.
Jaanvi’s issues stem from grief at the loss of her infant son at nine days old. Her relationship with her husband, Mark, is tense and fractious. With his set routines, fear of overspending and, crucially, his life outside their home, Mark has become the target of Jaanvi’s anger, and she has taken to committing petty acts of revenge. In a lingerie store she is startled by what appears to be a dead baby in a pram. It’s a doll, a ‘reborn’, expensive and lifelike. It belongs to the store owner. ‘Lots of people speak to you when you have a baby. When you’re alone, not so much.’ The doll is named James. Jaanvi steals it.
We meet the third character, pharmacy owner Lucas, on a blind date. About to turn forty, Lucas has had only one girlfriend in his life, and hopes that this date might become number two. Lucas is probably on the autism spectrum and has trouble reading people and understanding emotions. On the plus side, it makes him highly focused and diligent—excellent qualities in a pharmacist, where even a slight error in dispensing could have terrible consequences. Unfortunately, Lucas’s assistant is sleep-deprived by a new baby and an error is made, putting one of his best customers, the flirtatious 85-year-old Mrs Van Nuys, in hospital. Lucas has a lot to deal with already: his bi-polar mother is off her medication and his staff are tricky to manage. But this is a crisis, the worst thing he could imagine, and the fragile Jenga-pile he’s built his life on starts to topple.
Fake Baby, like The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, asks where all these lonely people come from, and answers in variations on the same theme: trauma. Abuse, loss, neglect—when these are intense enough, they physically alter our brains. If we are vulnerable to a mental illness, like Stephen, abuse can be a catalyst. Grief like Jaanvi’s can settle in and become chronic depression. Never being shown love because a parent isn’t willing or, in Lucas’s case, able, affects both emotional and physical development. Trauma’s impact is significant and too often overlooked as the root of persistent misery.
McDaid, who works part-time as an intensive care nurse for new-borns, shows that trauma makes us question who we are: are we worthy, good, loveable, sane? Lucas’s employee, Ayla, drinks Authentici-tea: each teabag tag opens to reveal an inspirational saying. These read like they’ve been written by an internet bot—‘If you make friends with yourself, you’ll never be alone as the daisies in the field’—but that’s not the point. What’s meaningful is the ritual of opening, and the hope that you can interpret the saying as a sign that all will be well.
Ayla is also obsessed with her social media profile and measures her worth by the number of followers and likes. It’s the most obvious example of self-validation, but all the characters have their habitual ways of seeking reassurance and comfort, of shoring up their sense of self. Stephen has his word associations—‘Plan. Pean. Peat. Pest. Lest. Lost’—and his zealous mission to destroy his father. ‘Who was lost? Not him … He had his plan.’ This sustains him, as does his glee at outwitting the ‘authorities’. He parrots back their ritualistic words, ‘mindfulness’, ‘centred’, ‘calm’, so that they will leave him alone. He will abscond again at the earliest opportunity.
Lucas talks up the importance of his role. He is not a mere pill-counter—he’s a soldier on the front line. ‘He battled a world of careless doctors and rampant hypochondriasis on a daily basis. His responsibilities should not be underestimated.’ He needs to remind himself regularly of what he’s achieved in life, ‘despite the challenges’ of his upbringing. But in order to remain convinced of this, Lucas needs everything to be regular, predictable and under his complete control. Right now, nothing is. Buses don’t come on time, ducklings fall down drains, someone is inappropriately barricaded in a public toilet. And Lucas cannot answer his own question: ‘Where did the truth lie?’
The rituals involved in caring for the reborn doll becomes Jaanvi’s comfort. They allow her to process her grief and slowly return to herself—and to her husband, who has been suffering in his own way. Jaanvi’s loss will affect her forever, but unlike Stephen she has a chance to reclaim mental equilibrium and heal her relationships. We have hope for Lucas, too. His way of being in the world may be narrow and risk-averse but it’s true to who he is. Perhaps this is the secret to happiness, or at least contentment.
At the end of the novel Stephen makes up a rhyme: ‘Penance rewind. Memory—entwined.’ Traumatic experiences shape us, often more profoundly than we know. But we can come to terms with our hurt and with who we’ve become because of it. We can make friends with ourselves.
With Fake Baby McDaid gives us a comedy that should feel dark but doesn’t. The humour is kind, not cutting, and for all the pain in the characters’ mental struggles, there’s a counterbalance of optimism. McDaid connects us fully with Stephen, Jaanvi and Lucas. We see past their quirks and faults to their whole being, where we find they don’t look all that different to us.
CATHERINE ROBERTSON is a New Zealand novelist and co-owner of Good Books, an independent bookshop in Wellington. In 2020 she was the CNZ/International Institute of Modern Letters Writer in Residence. Catherine is on the board of Verb Wellington, and a regular guest on Jesse Mulligan’s Book Critic slot. Catherine’s latest novel, Spellbound (Black Swan) is out now.