Book review: Valerie Sayers reviews 'The Birth of Love,' by Joanna Kavenna

By Valerie Sayers
Tuesday, April 20, 2010


By Joanna Kavenna

Metropolitan. 304 pp. Paperback, $15

Joanna Kavenna's first novel, "Inglorious" -- an unexpectedly funny and decidedly moving account of a young woman's crackup -- was punctuated with the recurring phrase "the death of love," so it's a good surprise to see the title of her new book. This complex meditation on childbirth and matriarchy is far more conceptual and wide-ranging than "Inglorious." A braided narrative twisting together seemingly disparate stories over a three-century span, "The Birth of Love" demands close attention, but it also yields new pleasures and challenges. Those multiple stories, it turns out, are not so disparate after all.

The novel's first strand, "The Moon," concerns Robert von Lucius, a 19th-century Viennese writer who attempts to discover the identity of a madman confined to a gruesome asylum. In letters to a professor whom he clearly reveres, von Lucius second-guesses his own efforts to aid the inmate and discover his identity. But when he finally learns that his subject is Ignaz Semmelweis, the (real-life) physician who attempted to stop the spread of childbirth fever, von Lucius begins to question his belief in scientific authority.

This strand is further (and deliciously) complicated when we learn in another strand, "The Hermit," that the von Lucius narrative is part of a present-day novel written by Michael Stone, a self-doubting, middle-aged writer who after years of fruitless labor has published his first book, "The Moon." Stone nervously endures the launch-day celebrations for his novel even as he learns of his mother's descent into dementia. His agent speaks one of the wryest lines in this meta-fictional story when she says, "Men are unlikely to read a book about childbirth. It's unfortunate, but there's not much to be done."

That is the common wisdom in publishing circles today, to the detriment of male readers and female writers alike, but Kavenna simply ignores the common wisdom. Not only does she introduce two important male characters, she suggests everywhere in these pages that childbirth has always been the business of both sexes, for better and for worse.

While some of the most compelling scenes are told from the perspective of Brigid Hayes, a middle-aged, contemporary Londoner in labor with her second child, we also get her husband's distinctive vantage point as he views "the terrifying beauty of the birth -- the gory sundering." Brigid's labor is ultimately full of the medical interventions she hoped to avoid, but the description of her struggle in an enlightened age proves as suspenseful as the historical scenes depicting horrifying medical practices.

Brigid's name echoes the fertility and maternity goddesses that Michael Stone thinks were "worshipped for thousands of years and then shoved aside." She is also connected, thematically and genetically, to the fourth strand of the novel, "The Tower," in which the story fast-forwards to the year 2153. A state authority, the "Genetix," controls all reproduction in order to guarantee the survival of mankind. Recounted in dialogues between interrogators and prisoners who have challenged the Genetix's authority, this section is impressive; the idea of the Genetix is a worthy successor to the dystopian visions of Lessing, Atwood and Huxley.

But this is also the most remote part of the novel, since much of the action is reported in terse summary. And the language sometimes goes gooey as the prisoners explain their attraction to the "Magna Mater," or "Great Mother," an "unfathomable power" and "a force flowing within everything there is." While I'm all for reclamations of lesser-known myths that celebrate female power -- one prisoner even sings from the Finnish epic creation myth "The Kalevala" -- the writing in this section is relentlessly humorless. Having one's body co-opted by the state is pretty grim stuff, of course, but I still found myself longing for the dry irony of the novel's earlier parts.

Kavenna nonetheless finishes with tremendous narrative force, and the depiction of birth in the novel's final pages is riveting. She manages to pull tighter and tighter a mighty number of scientific, mythical, historical and philosophical strands, all while holding the cerebral and the worldly in good balance. Nervy enough to give her novel the lofty title "The Birth of Love," Kavenna is ambitious and inventive enough, finally, to earn it. She's a compelling and original writer, and we readers -- I'm talking female and male here -- should keep our eyes on her.

Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of five novels.

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