Joanna Kavenna’s The Birth of Love
Henry Holt, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

The Birth of Love opens with a glimpse of three of the four characters whose perspectives fill the chambers of this second novel. In a single page, readers peek into Ignaz Semmelweis’ beating, Prisoner 730004’s confinement, and Brigid’s labour pain, before being launched into the narrative proper.

It’s gripping stuff, and the novel’s first segment is atmospheric;  its strong pacing pulls readers into the present-day elements, just as the 1865 visitor to the Lazarettgasse asylum is pulled into the story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

Yes, this is fiction, but Semmelweis was a real doctor, driven mad by his inability to convince his peers of the validity of his theory that hand-washing between autopsies and birth would save the lives of thousands of women.

There is historical evidence of his madness, but no evidence of an attentive ear in the form of the visitor that Kavenna creates.

This act of creation may reveal a compulsion that the author executes in fiction, the need to illuminate and celebrate connections.

This is not only a driving force for Semmelweis, who went crazy trying to connect his ideas with willing listeners and practitioners (and, consequentially, with living mothers), but for many of the characters in the other segments of the narrative as well.

Brigid is devoted to engaging with her child Calumn and with the baby she has not yet birthed. On the day on which her labour for this second child begins, she hears a radio interview with Michael Stone, who has written a novel about Semmelweis.

Michael Stone seems to have been almost overtaken by his engagement with his subject, with what this man represents to him; he is compelled to write his novel without either being able to articulate his reasons for doing so or the understanding that he feels he has gained throughout the process.

“I was trying to write about conviction…about those who propose something that is not generally thought, and how they are dealt with. About those who are convinced of what they say, to the point that they continue to speak, even when everyone has turned away. And I felt that … all things being unknowable, all real things, all real mysteries, then…well, who can stand, really, and say, “I know; I understand’? I wanted to write …something about this…impulse.”

In fact, it seems as though it is the unknowable — the un-understandable, the incomprehensible, the mysterious — which has driven him to write. And, yet, he does write. He might not be adept at the social engagements that authorship requires of him, but he seeks to connect with readers, with a broader sense of meaning in the world around him, nonetheless.

The cast of characters in the futuristic elements of the novel also strive to find meaning in a world which makes that intensely difficult. In the wake of the devastation the human species has caused to the planet and its inhabitants, a small group of survivors breaks away from the heavily monitored and controlled settlements and returns to a raw, vulnerable life on the land.

These characters bear numbers for their inquisitors, who have recaptured the renegades, but amongst their group they have names and histories. They, like Semmelweis and Michael Stone, are interrogated and found lacking but they, too, possess a connection to a deeper truth, although the form which that takes does change, even throughout the final pages of their narrative.

Binding them all, though not always tangibly, is Brigid. Centuries before, this reference would have brought more immediate attention to the matters of conception and childbirth, more broadly, to fertility and new growth. Modern readers won’t miss the allusion, however, because Brigid is The Mother. She is on the cusp of labour when she is introduced and it’s this act which exists at the heart of the novel.

Brigid’s character experiences a vast array of emotions; through her, readers participate in moments simultaneously painful and beautiful: the dichotomy of childbirth. This is her connection to the unknowable, to the root of meaning, to The Birth of Love.

Despite a strong attraction to individual elements, ultimately I did not feel firmly rooted in any of the novel’s segments, and perhaps that was the point. That’s an idea that I appreciate in theory — and I do think it makes a more readable novel — but there were elements of these segments that simply whet my reader’s appetite for more.

Initially I found the Semmelweis portions most compelling (they reminded me of Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Merilyn Simonds The Convict Lover in some ways), and then I found the futuristic elements most intriguing (recalling Jacqueline Harper’s I Who Have Never Known Men, Barbara Walker’s Amazon, Sally Gearhart’s The Wanderground, and Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing).

Overall, it was the connections between the narrative elements that stood out, but I wanted to feel a stronger connection to the individual characters. Like the characters in The Birth of Love, who are reaching for something just beyond their grasp, I can see the potential for connection there.

Joanna Kavenna can obviously tell a good story, so perhaps either I needed to be a more attentive reader, or perhaps she simply needed more pages to allow me to become more completely absorbed. (I admit to being a somewhat distracted reader these days, due partly to being Buried in Boxes of Books rather than being Buried in Print, in conjunction with other life events which have conspired to erode focus and reading time.)

Nonetheless, this is one of the Orange reads for which I already have a list of readers in mind; it is readily recommendable with its strong pacing and satisfying resolution, and I will contentedly recommend it.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 11 of 20 (Joanna Kavenna)

Originality Puts childbirth at the centre of a 301-page novel
Readability Solid momentum through each storyline
Author’s voice Tone changes to suit storyline
Narrative structure Four narrators, three time periods 1865 – present day – 2153
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Won the Orange Prize Award for New Writers, 2008 Inglorious

Reading Companions:
Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess (1993)
Keith Oatley’s A Natural History (1998)
Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit (2006)
Helen Simpson’s “Labour” in Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990)