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Joanna Kavenna: The Birth of Love

The novel is called The Birth of Love but it could have been called The Love of Birth because it essentially about childbirth. Kavenna tells four separate stories, all related to the issue of childbirth, one set in 1965, two set in the present day and one set in 2153. Though it is about childbirth, Kvenna has made it clear that this is not a”woman’s” novel and is intended for both sexes, though one of the characters – a literary agent – points out that men do not read novels about childbirth.

The first story, set in 1865, is about a historical character – Ignaz Semmelweis. Semmelweis was an Austrian doctor, who worked in the maternity unit of the largest hospital in Vienna. He had noticed that many women died of puerperal sepsis after being examined by doctors who had recently been working in the autopsy room. These doctors did not wash their hands and he therefore assumed – correctly, as we now know – that they were transmitting an infection to the women. He campaigned for doctors to wash their hands, before examining the women but was met with hostility from his colleagues, who were convinced that the deaths were caused by an unhealthy atmosphere. He eventually went insane and was taken to the local asylum, where he was beaten up by the guards and died two weeks later. The novel starts at the point where he is taken to the asylum. A man called Robert von Lucius (there is a current journalist of that name but I am sure that it is just coincidence) who is an amateur student of sanity and insanity visits him and manages to talk to him. He recounts his story in a letter to a Professor Wilson. Semmelweis has forgotten his own name and has only the idea that he is responsible for the deaths of many women but that someone called Johann Klein is responsible for the deaths of many more women. He has these visions of blood but, beyond that, no idea of who or what he is. The student is able to do some investigation at the hospital and learns his identity and the story of Semmwelweis’ views on the cause of puerperal sepsis. When von Lucius again visits Semmelweis, he has remembered who he is. He also remembers one woman for whose death he feels responsible – Birgit Vogel. The name Brigid (and variations thereof) will appear in each section of the book.

The second and third stories are set in the present time. Brigid is forty-one and pregnant with her second child. The baby is two weeks overdue. We follow her as she struggles through her day, thinking that she is going into labour, feeling various pains and trying to cope with her life. This includes freelance work as a copy editor, as she and her husband are not very well-off, and looking after her two year old son, Calumn. She gets a not very welcome visit from her mother, who tells her how much better she did it and urges Brigid to have the baby induced (Brigid refuses). She also gets a visit from a friend, Stephanie, who has a baby as a result of having IVF. While working she has the radio on and hears an interview with a novelist, Michael Stone, who has written a novel about Semmelweis. The other present-day story is about Michael Stone. He is fifty-three and lives alone. He has always had low-paying jobs, particularly in language teaching, and has always wanted to be a novelist. His previous efforts have been rejected but, finally, his agent has found a publisher for his novel on Semmelweis, after other rejections. We follow a couple of days in his life, as he meets some literary types for lunch, goes to a party and goes for an interview and his nervousness and excess consumption of alcohol make him tongue-tied. His mother has dementia and his brother keeps phoning him, urging him to visit her but he does not.

The final story is set in 2153. There is no sexual reproduction, only in vitro reproduction. People live in crowded tower blocks, with lighting only for one hour a day. Prisoner 730004 is being interrogated because of her crimes. She and a group of other people had helped a woman called Birgitta (yes, that name again) escape to a remote island. It seemed that Birgitta was pregnant, something which was impossible, according to the interrogators. (Women when eighteen years of age were, as the interrogators put it, harvested and then closed up.) In any case Prisoner 730004 is adamant that Birgitta was pregnant and had a baby boy. The interrogators want to know where Birgitta is now and Prisoner 730004 says that, even if she did know, which she does not, she would not tell. They interrogate her further on her motives and the motives of the others. Prisoner 730004 insists that in utero reproduction is more natural and better, which the interrogators condemn. Other members of the group are also interrogated along similar lines before being condemned.

This is a good idea but, somehow, it did not really work for me. The most successful part is the first part, about Semmelweis, where we really do see Semmelweis’ concerns and his insanity. The 2153 section is something of a 1984 meets Brave New World with a traditional story – oppressive, futuristic state, a few rebels want freedom, they are caught, they pay the penalty. We have seen it many times before. The slight twist is that the freedom they want is to allow Birgitta to have a child the old-fashioned way. Romantic love and political freedom, though mentioned, are very minor considerations. The present-day stories are also fairly conventional. We follow Brigid, as she goes through the torment of a long labour and Michael Stone, as he gets nervous about appearing in public. In short, while the idea of tying disparate stories together with the theme of childbirth (and there are one or two other links, such as the Brigid name) is certainly an interesting one, and the story is well written, the final result is mildly disappointing.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Faber & Faber