‘This is a page-turning read and I’d recommend it’ – The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna’s second novel, The Birth of Love, has just been longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize, and her previous novel, Inglorious, won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2008 – not a bad pedigree! I’d read the cover blurb for The Birth of Love – the New Yorker praises Kavenna’s ‘ruthlessly naturalistic depiction of modern childbirth’ – and I was hooked. The fact that I’ve recently given birth myself hasn’t anything to do with it, of course. Ahem. Anyway, the book turned out to be an engaging and thought-provoking read – a multi-stranded narrative that looks at childbirth and parenthood and the writing process itself from five different perspectives. There’s plenty here to keep you interested, and though some of Kavenna’s influences possibly float too close to the surface, and I found some strands weaker than others, it’s a decent contender for the Orange, and I’ll be waiting to see what happens with the shortlist.

There’s four alternating narrative threads here; because of this, it’s kind of hard to give a quick summary of the entire book, so I’ll go one-by-one. In 2009, Brigid Hayes is waiting to give birth – middle-aged and somewhat overdue, she’s being pressured by her interfering mother to ask for an induction, while she herself wants to avoid the unpleasant medicalised experience she had with the birth of her first child. Parts of Brigid’s sections are vocalised through her husband, Patrick, who’s feeling scared and helpless throughout. The way Kavenna narrates the actual birth through Patrick’s terror is fantastic – she manages to convey the uncertain emotions of impending fatherhood just as well as she does Brigid’s determination and self-absorbtion as her labour develops.

Then there’s the 1865 section, in which Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis is imprisoned in a Viennese mental institution following a breakdown related to his research into so-called childbed fever, or puerperal sepsis. Semmelweis has discovered that simple hygienic precautions can prevent the spread of this epidemic, due to which thousands of women have died soon after childbirth, but his theory is mocked and refuted by his colleagues, and he suffers a mental collapse. He’s visited in the asylum by a researcher who’s interested in the borders between lunacy and sanity, and this man sets out to discover the truth about Semmelweis and his assertions. The asylum sections are narrated in letters to the researcher’s friend and mentor, a Professor Wilson; the language is precise and analytic, and the contrast between the horror of the asylum setting and the disease as described by Semmelweis is powerful.

In 2153, a group of unnamed prisoners are being interrogated. In this post-environmental-apocalyptic society, a women’s eggs are harvested when she’s eighteen and her womb is sealed so that the government can efficiently control reproduction; not only do children and parents not meet, but the very terminology of the family unit is banned in favour of sterile terms like egg donor and progeny. A small group, however, has escaped after one of them miraculously becomes pregnant; in a desolate pioneer-like new existence, she bears a son. After the group is tracked down and mostly recaptured, the authorities are desperate to identify this woman, but her comrades have sworn themselves to secrecy. There’s a dystopian Handmaid’s Tale feel to these sections of the novel, and it’s an interesting premise, but there’s no real narrative progression beyond that, and the prisoners’ voices are all rather irritatingly elegiacal in their praise of their temporary wild lives and the miracle of natural pregnancy and birth. The way the section wraps up seemed too cryptic and wishy-washy (you know, to use a technical term). And there’s also little explanation of why the government went for such an inhumane implementation of their population-control policy in the first place. However, the distinction between mechanised reproduction and the joy of natural parenthood links it neatly back to Brigid’s unwillingness to go to the hospital in the contemporary strand – and anyway, this is only one of four sections, so  I wouldn’t let it overpower your impression of the whole novel.

The remaining thread begins to knit everything together: this is the story of Michael Stone, a long-struggling writer who’s just published a novel, The Moon, and is overwhelmed by the media fuss accompanying the book-launch at a time when his estranged mother is dying. Michael’s novel, we quickly discover, is Semmelweis’s story. And Brigid, our labouring heroine, is listening to a radio show about it. But that’s not the only link: the fertile character in 2153 is apparently related to the Brigid of 2009, and her assumed name is Birgitta – which is, again, a variant of the name of one of Semmelwies’s puerperal victims in 1865, according to Stone. So they’re all knotted together pretty firmly with textual clues as well as the thematic echoes of birth and death. If it wasn’t for Brigid’s radio show, I’d have come to the conclusion that the whole thing was Stone’s idea, but I don’t think that’s actually implied.

So, with the exception of the futuristic bits, each section is in itself really entertaining, and there’s enough variation between the parts to keep most people happy – you’ve got historical fiction, sci-fi and contemporary domestic realism all in one pretty short novel. Not to mention Stone’s tortured meditations on his writing process, which will please the metafictional-minded of you, and of course this also links back to the generative act of childbirth. All very clever.  So what was I saying earlier about influences? There’s some very strong echoes of other popular texts here that seem worth pointing out. Not only the Atwood tribute in the futuristic sections, but also Elizabeth Baines’ novel,The Birth Machine, which also (amongst other things) examines the technologised facets of modern childbirth. Most obviously, there’s David Mitchell’s genre-mixing, alternate-stranded Cloud Atlas. I’m not a huge Cloud Atlas fan, but his use of different genres and interlinked narratives probably should be acknowledged, and it takes away from the novelty of what Kavenna’s doing here. The linked narratives also hark back to Michel Cunningham’s The Hours, particularly with the inclusion of a tortured author figure, though of course Cunningham’s text is based on a real-life writer and Kavenna’s, presumably, isn’t. But maybe you haven’t read these texts, or you don’t care, or you reckon I should take the novel on its own merits, and in that case, it fares well.

Any Cop?: I wasn’t impressed with the sci-fi sections, but other than that, my reservations about The Birth of Love mainly revolve around an impression that the distinctive structure and style is somewhat derivative. But – and this is my main point – that doesn’t really make the book itself any less riveting, the characterisation any less strong, and the themes (childbirth; the creative, generative act; parental and filial love) any less moving. This is a page-turning read and I’d recommend it. Even if it gave me the willies about the whole childbirth thing. And you might not mind the sci-fi bits. So, definitely worth a read.

Valerie O’Riordan

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.