‘A fairy-tale-cum-horror-story’ – The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

Elizabeth Baines’ first novel, The Birth Machine, is a case-study in how the path to publication ain’t always paved with velvet cushions and rose petals.  First released in 1983 by The Women’s Press, the book was a success, boasting a sell-out print run, radio dramatisation and inclusion on university reading lists – but a complicated relationship between Baines and her publisher (check out her fascinating account here) led to the book dropping out of print and languishing, unread, until 1986, when Baines reissued it herself as The Birth Machine – The Author’s Cut, restoring her preferred structure, one that The Women’s Press had refused to go along with first time out.  Cut to 2010, and Salt Publishing, on the back of the successful release of Baines’ most recent book, Too Many Magpies, asked her permission to reprint The Birth Machine using the author’s structure and throwing in a brand spanking (and undeniably disturbing) new cover design and Baines’ own notes on her authorial intentions and how the book has been received in the past.  Hurray, Salt!  So the book has once again hit the shelves, ready for a whole new generation of readers.

So what’s the deal?  Why the controversy, the structural debate, the creepy picture on the front? The Birth Machine is about logic and labour, induction and sedation, powerlessness and the stories we allow to rule our lives.  It certainly fits neatly into a debate on obstetrics, midwifery, natural versus medicalized births and woman’s right to control her own labour that’s still raging now, almost thirty years after Baines penned the book.  Zelda Harris is a doctor’s wife, and her husband’s boss is using her as a guinea-pig to test out his new ‘machine’ – an induction device to make human birth a mechanised, regulated process that will fit neatly into the working schedule of the obstetrician’s daily routine.  Zelda, drugged and hospitalized against her will, slips into a hallucinatory state, in which past secrets rise up and mingle with her hazy perception of what’s happening to her in the ward and in the operating theatre.  It’s a fairy-tale-cum-horror-story, anything but predictable, and really, really, disturbing.  And here’s the crux of the debate – the easiest way to categorize The Birth Machine is as a cautionary tale against Men And Their Machines, as a diatribe against hospitals and inductions and in favour of natural birth – and though this is, to an extent, valid, it’s also a reduction of the text:  The Birth Machine is about logic and how it’s ignored and abused.  The logic of Zelda’s case oughtn’t to lead to an premature induction, so the scientific objectivity espoused by the obstetrician is flawed, and her own subjectivity, her own understanding of her situation and her wishes, is sacrificed to a system that neither satisfies the Holy Grail of ‘objectivity’ nor accommodates Zelda’s own individual subjectivity or logic.  The Women’s Press edition focused more heavily on the gender divide in the novel:  the Bad Male Obstetrician versus the Female Victim (a position which ignores the female nurses’ complicity in Zelda’s treatment), and made Baines reshuffle the earliest chapters into a different order, one which emphasised Zelda’s drugged helplessness, rather than the objective/subjective split with which Baines herself was concerned.  When you read Salt’s edition, the first character you’ll meet is the Professor, the inventor of the Machine and the proponent of objectivity; Zelda herself comes into the book little by little, and it’s only by the fourth chapter that you’ll enter her mind, her memories and her surreal experience as she waits for her contractions to begin. The original edition brought this chapter to the front, so the indignity and powerlessness of Zelda’s situation overshadows any other reading.  Baines says in her Afterword that her concern as a writer was

‘the problematic conflict between scientific ‘objectivity’ and personal subjectivity’

– and this is reinstated in Salt’s version of the book.

Politics and history aside, what’s it actually like? A damn good read, is what.  Baines’ writing is sharp and satirical and at the same time, poetic: the matter-of-fact descriptions of hospital procedures blends with impressionistic snatches of Zelda’s childhood memories, creating an incredibly vivid set of tableaux that get increasingly mixed-up as the drugs take over.  Side-by-side with her advancing labour, delivery and recovery, we hear what happened the summer she was eight (I’m not going down the spoiler route here), the history of her marriage to her doctor husband, Roland, and the genesis of this pregnancy.  And she’s no wishy-washy goody-goody victim, as this back-story shows, so there’s no danger of the character being read as a cipher; Baines carries off the multiple narrative stands with aplomb and the story is never overshadowed by the ideas and themes behind it.  Moreover, as the novel’s very compact, it never drags or feels padded out and it manages the tricky feat being both beautifully told and intellectually stimulating.  And, of course, it’s funny.  What’s not to like?

Any cop? It’s a cliché to say this is a must-read, but still, I’m going to urge you all to read it.  And I’m talking to you, too, boys: it might have a lot of fairy-tale aspects and it’s undeniably about pregnancy and labour, but it’s got science, too!  Seriously.  Salt’s done the public a service in bringing this one back.  It’s a rock-hard satire and a very, very, very good read.  So, you know, read it.

Valerie O’Riordan


  1. I have read it and loved it. I think it’s an important book in the constant debate on medical ethics. It should be on medics reading lists. It’s beautifully written. Baines is a wonderful prose writer.

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