Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love is really four different stories, two set in the present and one each in the past and the future. There are slight connections between the stories, but really they are just four different perspectives on childbirth and motherhood. We start in turn of the century Vienna with a man named Semmelweiss imprisoned in a horrific lunatic asylum for daring to suggest that many more women could survive childbirth if doctors washed their hands between performing autopsies and attending births. We then move to Brigid, just beginning to feel early contractions with her second child in twenty-first century London, and from there on to Michael Stone, a reclusive author struggling to deal with the publicity involved with the publication of his first book, which happens to be about Semmelweiss, and struggling to decide whether to visit his aging mother whom he has not spoken to for many years. And finally, a story set in 2153, when climate change has caused irreversible destruction of the planet, and all reproduction is carried out in laboratories. Women are harvested for eggs at eighteen and the forcibly sterilised. In the midst of all this, a woman somehow gets naturally pregnant and escapes from the compound, although this story is told through prisoner interviews once the escapees have been recaptured.

The running theme throughout the novel is of motherhood as a powerful force in nature. The women in all of the stories are dealing with different aspects of childbirth and motherhood, but they all feel an overwhelming urge to have children, and protect their children. The women in the first section are terrified of the hospital for fear of losing their own lives, and that of their babies. Brigid constantly talks in terms of her body doing this to her whilst she is in labour, Michael feels the need to visit his mother a final time, even though she will not really know f his presence, and the women in the final section feel unfulfilled and incomplete because of their forced sterility. And obviously, the child born from a supposedly closed womb is an obvious symbol for the natural and all-encompassing nature of motherhood.

It is difficult to say which of these was my favourite thread, because they were all interesting, and very different. I found it difficult to understand how such a simple thing as hand washing could be refuted, and fascinated by the different theories that the doctor in charge of childbirth hospitals came up with to avoid having to wash their hands. And the images of the treatment/incarceration at the lunatic asylum were difficult to read .Childbirth in the past was obviously a much more dangerous procedure. Brigid’s story was pretty graphically described, and not pleasant reading in places, as it spares no details about the nature of childbirth, but the realism in he description was necessary to get across the impression of childbirth as all consuming, and a powerful experience. And the sparse almost robotic language used in the interrogation of the prisoners in the futuristic section contrasted well with Brigids section as it makes clear that this force and power is what they are missing from their lives. With familial terms replaced with words such as egg and sperm donor, and progeny of the species, all human ties with reproduction have been severed and what we are left with is an emotionless, businesslike society, but without love.

I did enjoy the slight moments of interconnectedness between the various threads in this story (but then I always like that in a novel), however, I think it was the differing experiences of childbirth and motherhood that I found most appealing, however difficult they were to read. Giving birth today is described in full detail, but as much as childbirth is painful I think we have it lucky. I can’t imagine a society where just going into hospital to give birth is a life and death situation, or conversely, a situation where childbirth and family relationships are stripped away altogether. I really hope we never end up in such a dystopic society.

2 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I'm so pleased that you decided to read this book and enjoyed it. I really hope that Kanenna's vision for the future doesn't happen, but I can see exactly why she made her predictions. Our society does seem to be heading towards a more clinical way of doing everything, but I can't imagine not being pregnant and giving birth to my children. I think it would create a very different mother-child relationship.

I hope lots of other people decide to read this book - it is a great discussion starter :-)

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