The Birth of Love
by Joanna Kavenna
Faber & Faber; Paperback;
Price: £12.99; 309 pages;
ISBN 978 0 571 24517 8
Joanna Kavenna’s second novel (after Inglorious, which won the Orange Award for New Writers) tells four loosely connected stories on the theme of childbirth and motherhood. Set centuries apart, in an array of styles and even of fonts, they collectively affirm the irreducible mystery of the act of giving birth and the strength of the connection it forges. ‘The Moon’, set in 1865, centres on Ignaz Semmelweis, the real-life Hungarian obstetrician who first made the link between doctors’ unwashed hands and childbed fever. ‘The Tower’ takes place in a nightmarish future where mothers are ‘egg donors’, babies are ‘progeny of the species’ and the maternal bond is strictly denied, only to be reawakened among a group of dissidents when a woman falls pregnant. The other two stories are set in the present day: ‘The Hermit’ follows reclusive novelist Michael Stone as his book about Semmelweis is launched and he learns of his mother’s dementia, while ‘The Empress’ takes the reader through the anxiety and labour pains of Brigid Hayes.
At first it is hard to see how Kavenna could possibly make these historically and stylistically disparate narratives cohere. Gradually, however, links emerge, and by the end of the novel the narratives have knitted together in a formally skilful, if rather arbitrary, fashion. They are united by a common theme of confinement or incarceration, from Vienna asylum to the imprisoned dissidents, via Michael’s self-imposed isolation and the ‘prison walls’ of Brigid’s womb. There is a shared, recurring dream of blood; a shared archetype of motherhood; a shared moon shining on all four stories. Most significantly, each strand shows how inflexible and yet how fallible is each successive dogma surrounding childbirth – and this becomes ‘a metaphor, for any system of belief’, formulated in terms of the struggle between ‘[t]he one and the confident many’.
Those last two quotes come from Michael Stone’s musings on his own novel The Moon (from which, we are given to understand, the Semmelweis passages are taken). It is tempting to read Stone’s writerly self-doubt as a mouthpiece for Kavenna, a gloss on her own work: Stone, after all, concedes that his narrator is ‘himself, or some aspect of himself’. The words ‘ancient’, ‘ritual’ and ‘mystery’ recur frequently – prompting the thought that Kavenna, in taking care to flag up the novel’s concerns, has perhaps let too much light in on its mysteries. For all the exegesis, none of the narratives really gets enough time to immerse the reader in its imaginative world.
The most effective sections are those dealing with Semmelweis and his final days as a tragic, asylum-bound Cassandra. Kavenna tells his story in epistolary form, through a series of encounters with a scholar-narrator who seeks to understand his ideas while offering his own proto-Freudian interpretation of the root of his mental breakdown. This strand is affecting and engrossing, constructed with the pace of a two-handed drama. Equally powerful is the contraction-by-contraction account of Brigid Hayes’s labour, which prompted this reviewer to thank his lucky chromosomes he will only ever have to read about it.
The book is let down, however, by the jarring ‘2153’ strand. This takes the form of a series of interrogation transcripts (in their own sans serif typeface) of dissidents who have been arrested after fleeing the authoritarian, dehumanising regime that has arisen. Kavenna’s vision of farmed ovaries, eugenics and mass-scale farms owes something to Stalinism and more than a little to Aldous Huxley. Her brave new world, a response to the ravages of climate change, has none of the dangerous attractiveness of Huxley’s, however – it is an altogether more pedantic and humourless dystopia. More gravely, it does not achieve the quality of a fully realised world, leaning too heavily on science fiction cliché. There was one particular point in particular at which Kavenna lost my trust as a reader, when one of the prisoners, supposedly brainwashed from birth but obeying her instinct, says:
Yet there was something cathartic about the process. We who had been bred in sterilised sparkling machines, in the pristine technocratic sanctuary of the Genetix, we who had lived our days in perfect towers coated in shining solar shields, so everything was always glittering in the dangerous sunshine, suddenly we were dirtied, reborn into viscera and filth.
The character opens her mouth; the voice that emerges is the author’s. And this, finally, is the problem with The Birth of Love. Though there is much to admire in the novel’s ambition and scope, it lacks the discipline to succeed as a coherent piece of storytelling.