I first became interested in reading Joanna Kavenna's novel when I read Jackie's review over at Farm Lane Books. Being a newish mother myself, I can say that I'm newly interested in all things childbirth and motherhood-related. Before Greyson I probably wouldn't have felt compelled to try this book, though having finished it, I think I would've enjoyed it for Kavenna's beautiful writing.
The novel follows three main threads:
Dr Ignaz Semmelweis is a doctor in 1865 Vienna, and he proposes that many women die of childbed fever because doctors don't properly wash their hands between autopsies and births. Simple! However, his peers largely reject his observation and he lands in a mental institution.
Brigid Hayes is a mother in modern-day London juggling the needs of her young son as she approaches her due date. She cycles through feelings of guilt and excitement and stress and exhaustion as she cares for her son and anticipates the new arrival. Reading about Brigid's labor was riveting and exhausting. It was interesting to see those sensations and emotions described on the page.
In the year 2153 Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy. There was much more to this thread than I anticipated as several of the prisoners made appearances "interview style" as they were questioned by the authorities of their society for their roles in escaping the city Darwin C and setting up something like a commune where 730004 had her baby.
There's also another thread that I've hardly seen mentioned anywhere. Maybe because it felt unnecessary in relation to the rest of the book. Basically, a novelist named Michael writes the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, gets it published, and deals with his own feelings of hurt and remorse for his ailing mother as he works himself up to go visit her.
So what's so great about The Birth of Love? Quite honestly, there isn't much plot at all. It's small snatches of these folks' lives mingled together by turns. On the other hand, I think that's what makes it interesting. Because it's written in short pieces of each person's experiences, the emotions are heightened. It was downright intense in many a spot. Kavenna's writing is straightforward but her word choice hits just the right note to make some moments heartbreaking. This was one that got me:
She thinks of Calumn, waking in his little bed, wondering where she is. Crying, "Mamamam." She has only spent a few nights apart from him since his birth. Mostly, and in defiance of the opinions of experts, he spends the night in their bed, nestled between her and Patrick. She wonders if he woke in the night, and if he cried for her and found she had gone. Her mother would have been sleeping in the spare room--she imagines Calumn shuffling along the corridor, opening the door of the main bedroom, finding it empty, not knowing where else to look. Bemused and lonely in the corridor, in his little pajamas. She should have told her mother to sleep in the main bedroom instead. She hadn't been thinking, at the time.Can't you just see him in those little footy pjs? Ugg! Killed me.
At the end of the day, The Birth of Love is a good book because the time periods are varied but cohesive, the experiences seem honest, and the writing is fabulous. There's something for the historical lovers, the sf crowd, and those who just love great fiction. Everything (except that one weird thread I mentioned earlier involving Michael) seemed nicely integrated and nicely planned. All the pieces fit, and letting them unfold was a joyous reading experience.