by Joanna Kavenna
Four stories are woven together in this novel, each in some fashion related to birth. They span the centuries; the first is placed in the year 1865 when one Ignaz Semmelweis has realized that childbed fever or puerperal sepsis, which killed hundreds of women in hospitals annually, could be prevented by doctors simply washing their hands. He tries to convince other doctors to follow this simple practice but is ridiculed, ostracized and eventually goes mad (the story is actually centered on a man interviewing him in an insane asylum). The second storyline focuses on an author who decades later has just published a book about Semmelweis and is struggling to deal with the sudden publicity, which he finds very uncomfortable. Then there is a modern-day setting of a woman in London preparing to give birth to her second child at home with a midwife. The last story is set in a futuristic dystopia, when every womans' eggs are "harvested" and only those eggs considered genetically superior are fertilized and raised in laboratories. One woman is condemned for having given birth naturally, as a threat to the survival of the species.
All of the stories in The Birth of Love seemed to me to have a common theme of lack of control, on the part of those giving birth. Not only the women going through childbirth, but also those, in a sense, birthing new ideas. Semmelweis suffered mental agonies trying to make his ideas of cleanliness a reality that would save the lives of childbearing women. The fictional author Michael Stone is overwhelmed by events when his book is finally published (or "born")- being hustled here and there to events planned by others, forced into meetings with strangers, etc. The mother in London expects her second birth to be easier than the first, but instead finds herself struggling through hours of pain and finally capitulates to being moved to the hospital, things not at all going the way she'd planned. And of course the dystopian story is all about women having lost control of their bodies, not only can they never give birth, but some are forced to work in "sexual release centers" solely to please men, and when one does bear her own child, others refuse to even acknowledge that it happened.
I found every one of these storylines intriguing, even though none of the segments really went into the kind of character depth I love. After finishing the book, I was anxious to read more about Semmelweis and discover what finally convinced doctors in later years to follow his practices (germ theory was not yet known when he claimed that handwashing would stop the spread of contagion). Being interested in things bookish, I was curious to read about the turmoil the author went through after his words, written in solitude, were suddenly thrust into the public view and scrutinized. I could really relate to the woman in London, who worried about how her first child would adjust to having a new sibling, while she anticipated her new baby's arrival (although I thought it amusing that every time the older child- still not quite talking clearly- needed distracting he was offered food or drink. Didn't they ever give him a toy or game, but always ply him with food?). And of course it's always horrifyingly fascinating to think of the future and what extreme measures might be taken if we actually do destroy our planet with global warming, pollution and overcrowding, as the final tale vividly portrays.
Altogether a most interesting book. The interweaving of birthing themes kept me intent. I borrowed this one from the public library, read it after seeing the review on Farm Lane Books Blog.
Rating: 3/5 ........ 304 pages, 2010
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