The Birth of Love has 4 interwoven storylines about characters in different times, past, present and future. The common theme is birth.
In Vienna in 1865, Ignaz Semmelweis is admitted to a lunatic asylum, talking about how he and his colleagues working as doctors with women giving birth to children have murdered many women. He has discovered that simply washing his hands greatly reduces the mortality of women from childbed fever, but his colleagues will not believe this theory - it seems far too simple and owes nothing to their medical training and status as experts. The stress of derision and of his guilt at the deaths he himself caused have sent him over the edge. This tragically true story of Semmelweis, who died in the asylum at 47, is told through a visitor who talks to him, believes him and wants to help him. This story is in the form of a letter from Robert von Lucius to a colleague/friend, seeking advice. This was my favourite strand of the novel as it is a really compelling true story, and the portrait of Semelweiss' "madness" and guilt was very moving.
In 2009, Michael Stone, a struggling writer has had his book about Semmelweiss published, but he is terrified by the social side of seeking publicity for his work. His own mother is dying and wants to see him.
Meanwhile, Bridget Hayes is hoping to give birth to her second child at home, and having a difficult time. Her own mother has come round to help look after her son.
More than a century later, in 2153, reproduction and sexuality are strictly controlled, and a group of people who rebelled against that are being interrogated about a woman who somehow conceived and gave birth to a baby in the way we consider natural now. This part of the story is in the form of exchanges between the interrogators and prisoners.
The Birth of Love is a complicated and fascinating novel - it has taken me a while to sort out my thoughts about it, and I wish I had time to read it through again before writing this review. I was drawn to this as a story about childbirth as a subject I am fascinated by at the moment.
I would have expected Bridget's story to be the most interesting and accessible in some ways as being close to my experience. There is lots here that will be familiar to many women who have been through the experience of childbirth and all the emotions involved, including the overwhelming response to the new baby and the changes in how you relate to your own mother if she is around. It is beautifully written.
However, I actually found the stories of past and possible future experiences of birth more interesting. Bridget's sections of the book are written in the third person and I found them quite distancing from her as a character. I thought the historical and future stories offered me fresh perspectives, alternatives to my experience and the ones I have read and discussed at length with other mothers online, at NCT and other meetups, etc. I liked the fact that Semmelweis' story was presented through the eyes of someone who felt real compassion for him.
The vision of a possible future is terrifying but it highlights what is important about the present day experience of having children. In 2153, reproduction is very tightly controlled - who can be allowed to reproduce, and women (or men) have no part in bringing up "progeny of the species" - words like "children", "love" and "lovers" are forbidden in this brave new world. This part of the story is about a trial for breaking the law, and is written in the style of a play. I found it quite thought provoking although perhaps a bit too long, as it is very repetitive.
This is a novel with a strong message, reflected in the title - that love and our emotional response to childbirth are central to the experience and should be valued. So of course should the lives of women - although it was too late for him, Semmelweis was right about the value of simply washing hands, and childbirth now is much less dangerous for most women in Europe than it was in the 19th century.
This novel is quite challenging reading, but I think it is worth the effort for anyone with an interest in the subject (in the section about Michael Stone, someone comments that most men will not want to read about childbirth). I would suggest that anyone who is pregnant waits to read this until after the birth though!
Published: Faber Trade Paperback May 2010
ISBN: 978 0571 24517 8
Price RRP £12.99, Amazon £7.54
This is an edited version of a review which first appeared at the Bookbag.