Divorce. Family Court. Custody. Words that can give anyone a chill. These can be traumatising experiences, never more so than when there are small children involved. Caroline Overington’s third novel, Matilda is Missing, is a story that weaves together two families’ experiences of divorce, both in and out of the court. And in both cases, there are children involved, which just makes it more heartbreaking to read.
In the first family, the story is told from the perspective of the grandparents, who love their grandkids and only want to be able to see them, but the relationship between mother- and daughter-in-law is damaged with no prospect of reaching agreement. Grandad Barry tells the story of his wife Pat’s determination to be heard, but without going to court she sees her only path as media coverage, which does more harm than good to her chances of seeing her grandchildren again. What I didn’t realise is that there are many frustrated grandparents all trying to see their grandchildren after a divorce has separated the family, some of whom have formed organised groups and Caroline Overington has given these groups some representation in the novel.
Barry’s oldest mate Frank happens to be a retired Family Court Judge and when he calls Barry out for a beer one day, Barry is hopeful that he can offer advice on the family drama. But instead of that, Frank tells Barry he has cancer and a limited time to live, and that he wants Barry to write the story of a case gone wrong, to try to bring the truth to light. While surprised, Barry takes it on and ends up with a carload of case files, court transcripts and recorded counselling sessions to examine. Through this we hear the story of Garry and Softie, a mismatched pair who have a daughter, Matilda. The case of Softie and Garry’s divorce is probably not unusual, in that the relationship was not working and divorce seems like the only option. The court transcript and the recordings paint a picture of a couple who have only one thing in common – their daughter – and yet consideration of her needs or wants is almost entirely absent from the parents’ bickering. In fact custody of Matilda is seen as a prize to be won, not a privilege to be treasured.
This is an easy novel to read, but it will make you think and ponder for days afterwards. While divorce is sadly not alien to most of us, this novel reminds you that the children are also witnesses to and sometimes victims of their parents’ relationship struggles. And that however much it may appear differently, having the ability to see your own children not as prizes, but as a privilege is a concept that some people just cannot understand.
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