Rachael’s Gift by Alexandra Cameron

We’ve all heard of the pushy ‘stage mum’ but in her portrait of a family slowly imploding in the midst of a scandal, debut novelist Alexandra Cameron imagines the ruthless ‘art mum’. Forty-something couple, Camille and Wolfe, are struggling to rein in their 14-year-old daughter, Rachael. When Rachael – a talented artist, seductress and liar – accuses a teacher at her prestigious Sydney private school of sexual misconduct, Camille fears her daughter’s chances of getting into the best art school in France may be ruined.

Told through the alternating voices of husband and wife, Rachael’s Gift explores the challenges of parenting a precocious teenager, and contrasts Sydney’s dramatic coastal landscape with the glamour and duplicity of the Paris art world. In an era of risk-averse parenting, Rachael certainly isn’t afraid of taking any. She surfs big waves, sleeps with big surfers, takes outrageously suggestive selfies and produces art – brutally honest self-portraits – that makes adults either gape or blush.

Her parents are also motivated by a desire to uncover their own truth: Wolfe seeks answers to his daughter’s behaviour by trusting his instincts while Camille revisits her murky past, researching the provenance of an artwork sourced under dubious circumstances. In their attempts to reconcile their ideas on how best to bring up Rachael, both parents must examine the legacy of their upbringings and temperaments.

Rachael’s Gift taps into some of the deepest fears and preoccupations of modern parenting: bullying, social media, sexual predators, promiscuity, drugs, fame, ambition and giftedness. While Cameron’s portrayal of Rachael’s parents often slips into caricature, Rachael remains sassy and scarily believable, balancing perilously between innocence and experience. Cameron sustains a sense of intrigue around the question of Rachael’s real gift, and just who is being manipulated by it, until the novel’s end.

Sally Keighery is a freelance reviewer.