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Roger and baby in the sea

Inspiration for ‘The Beautiful Mother’

Every time Publication Day comes around, I take some time to look back at where the journey of this particular novel began. I have to be prepared for the questions people will ask – but it’s for my own sake as well. I like to remind myself how the story came into being.

There are usually lots of starting points. Going right back, The Beautiful Mother began with my own experience of becoming a mother. As I pondered this source, I found myself remembering a special family photograph – my husband Roger giving our baby son his first dip in the ocean.

Roger and baby in the sea

One of the things that stayed with me about being pregnant, and then caring for a baby, was that I felt drawn back to my instinctive self. I recall feeling a deeper sense of connection with the natural world than I’d ever known before. In a way, this transformation is a part of all my novels, but in The Beautiful Mother it takes centre stage.

Fast forward a couple of decades from that scene at the beach (the little baby is now a young man) and I was on a trip back to Tanzania. I was with my parents and my brother Andrew. On a hot dry-season day, we set off with a special goal in mind. To find the room where we were born.

The small building that was once Sandy Hill Hospital is now a government office full of dusty paperwork. We walked through the corridors with an entourage of staff who were keen to see our mission succeed. We peered through doorways, then moved on. After nearly fifty years, Mum was sure she would recognize which room was ‘the one’. And she was right! Finally, beyond a bookcase stacked with dog-eared manila folders, we discovered two concrete sinks. This was where Andrew and I – born less than two years apart – each had our first baths.

Sink where Katherine was born

The next image comes to me from that same journey. In a remote village we visited a special ‘orphanage’ for babies whose mothers have died in childbirth. These are much loved babies, but their families have a simple lifestyle where bottle-feeding is not an option. The little ones are cared for until they are two or three years old and able to manage on the local diet. Then they return home. To make that transition easier, a teenage girl from the extended family spends the entire time at the orphanage as well. (Can you imagine being in charge of a house full of babies and toddlers, plus a dozen or so teenage girls?) The stories behind each child we met were full of grief, but also love and hope.

Orphanage - Andrew, me and Ute with kids

That visit reminded me of something I came across when researching my first African novel The Rain Queen. I read a collection of letters written by an Australian nurse working in a remote part of what was then Tanganyika. She described fostering a motherless baby with the goal of returning her to her family when she was old enough. The nurse wrote about how she tried to prepare the little girl – and herself – for the parting. The single missionary woman was a mother for a season. And then she was not.

The idea of exploring a temporary connection with a baby was sparked. But what kind of person would be the short-term mother? Whose baby would she care for? Where? Why? And what would it all mean?

Choosing the right setting for a story idea is crucial. For many years I’d been interested in the world of an archaeologist’s research camp, inspired by the work of the real-life Leakey family at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. I’d visited the place on one of my research trips and knew about the discoveries that had been made there – ones that shed light on the story of our evolution from ape to modern human.

Kath and Andrew in Olduvai

Once I began thinking about it, I realized this would be a perfect setting for my new novel. I’d be able to go beyond what it means to be a mother, to confront questions about what it means to be human. What are the forces that have shaped the way we came to be? Why is childbirth so painful and difficult? Why are human babies so helpless? Why are we, as people, so different in terms of race and gender – and yet so very much the same? How does evolution even work?

I knew an enormous amount of research was going to be required – even more than my last book, which involved reading up on the entire history of the Congo, colonialism and the Cold War. But I sensed that the outcome would make it all worthwhile.

Having written quite a few novels, I knew how to comb my research for mirroring themes, contrasts and opportunities for drama. As I collected notes and worked on storylines and characters, the kaleidoscope began to turn and The Beautiful Mother came slowly into focus. There were surprising turns as well as the ones I’d planned. I found it a deeply emotional novel to write. How could it not be, with a tiny, vulnerable baby at its heart? I was still crying and smiling my way through the text, right up to the proof-checking stage.

Finally the day came when I had the thrill of holding a copy The Beautiful Mother in my hands for the first time. I slid the book from a brown post-bag, revealing the gorgeous cover with its tones of pink and mauve, the lettering touched with gold. I took in the stillness of the two flamingos, and the tenderness between mother and baby. Looking at the book on my desk this morning, I’m still struck by how well the image suits my story. I know I’ll always be happy to look up and see it sitting on my shelf – a beautiful edition, and a perfect match for the title of my story.

Book cover

The Beautiful Mother is available at your local bookseller or online via my website.