Still Born, the fourth novel by the critically-acclaimed Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, is an intriguing book. Recently longlisted for the International Booker Prize, the novel explores various aspects of motherhood – specifically, ambivalence towards the prospect of becoming a mother and what can happen when those feelings change – in candid, sensitive ways.
The novel takes as its focus two close friends, Laura (who acts as narrator) and Alina, both in their early to mid-thirties. Having first met in their twenties while studying/working in Paris, the two women now find themselves back in their home country of Mexico for different reasons. Both women had initially resisted motherhood as it would have restricted their career prospects and freedoms, but now the situation has changed. Alina and her husband, Aurelio, have been trying to have a baby for the past year without success and are about to embark on fertility treatment in the hope of a positive result. While at first, Laura is unsettled by the prospect of her friend joining the ranks of ‘zombie-like’ mothers ‘with no life of their own’, she eventually comes around to the idea, especially when Alina finally becomes pregnant.
Nettel touches on the wide range of responses to pregnancy and motherhood here, particularly among women. It’s a remarkably honest and nuanced treatment of the subject, which is refreshing to see.
A pregnancy changes many things indeed, including the connections we have with people: the friends who had decided not to have children now looked at her [Alina] differently, as if she were the carrier of a transmittable disease. The ones who did want them and could see their time running out, meanwhile, displayed towards her an admiration tinged with envy. I have no idea if any of them, aside from me, felt genuinely happy for her. (p. 35)
Initially, everything seems to be progressing well with Alina’s pregnancy; but at seven months, a scan reveals that the unborn baby’s brain is severely undeveloped, and the couple must come to terms with the pronouncement that their child, already named Inés, will die when separated from its mother at birth. In short, Inés’ brain will be incapable of carrying out all the normal autonomous bodily functions required to sustain life; the only thing keeping her alive right now is Alina. Moreover, Alina is strongly advised to carry the baby to term to maximise her chances of a successful pregnancy in the future, despite the unwavering predictions that Inés will die at birth.
There is a word to describe someone who loses their spouse, and a word for children who are left without parents. There is no word, however, for a parent who loses their child. Unlike previous centuries in which child mortality was very high, it’s not normal for this to occur in our time. It is something so feared, so unacceptable, that we have chosen not to name it. (p. 68)
However, when Inés is born, she defies the doctors’ expectations by surviving, albeit with severe brain damage, limiting her future development and ability to live an independent life. The baby’s condition is so rare that no one can predict how long she will live. Consequently, Alina and Aurelio must face the prospect of never knowing whether each day will be their baby’s last. It’s a situation that accentuates just how tenuous and fragile our lives can be, how any of us could die at any moment, in an accident or by a freak of nature. Inevitably, the situation triggers all sorts of emotions in the couple, especially Alina. She feels angry towards the doctors who told her to prepare for her baby’s death – the same doctors who now insist that Inés cannot see or hear anything, even though she seems to respond to various sounds and environments in the couple’s home.
Alongside Alina’s story, the novel also follows Laura as she becomes increasingly involved with her neighbours – a depressed single mother, Doris, and her troublesome son, Nicolás, whose outbursts can be heard through the paper-thin walls. Although Laura has undergone a sterilisation procedure to protect herself from becoming pregnant, she finds herself acting as a kind of substitute mother to Nicolás when his mother is too ill to provide proper care.
There is a lot going on in this novel (possibly too much?), with Nettel adding other reflections on motherhood through the somewhat strained relationship between Laura and her mother.
We daughters have a tendency to see in our mother’s mistakes the source of all our problems, and our mothers tend to consider our defects as proof of a possible failure. So as to avoid conflict, I have, over the past few years, opted to not completely reveal what I am thinking, to hide my fondnesses and fears, becoming as unreadable as possible to escape the knife-edge of her comments… (p. 150)
Moreover, Alina feels somewhat undermined in her role as Inés’ mother when she hires an uber-efficient nanny, Marlene, who becomes very attached to the little girl, experiencing all the joys of seeing her progress and develop without the burden of having long-term responsibility for her care.
There’s also an interesting parallel between a family of pigeons nesting on the balcony of Laura’s flat and the other aspects of motherhood Nettel explores in the novel. Like Alina and Aurelio, the pigeons must deal with an unexpected tragedy when one of the eggs they have been nurturing disappears from their nest.
They were perched on the nest, cooing at a volume that sounded louder than usual. Were they pining for the presence of the other egg? Did they experience its disappearance as a painful loss? Or was it something for which pigeons and other creatures are prepared, while human beings simply cannot tolerate it? (p. 70)
Once again, Nettel adds another dimension to the narrative here, touching on themes of brood parasitism, a practice whereby birds such as cuckoos pass the responsibility for raising their offspring onto others by laying their eggs in another bird’s nest.
While I really liked the first half of this novel and Nettel’s cool, quietly compelling prose style throughout, the second half seemed somewhat less focused and clear to me. Moreover, Nettel introduces something at the halfway point that appears to be setting up a moral dilemma for Alina, offering her a possible way out if coping with baby Inés proves too much; however, this element remains dormant for the remainder of the book. Still, the author is to be commended for tackling some difficult aspects of motherhood with tenderness, openness and sensitivity. It’s an interesting exploration of how our attitudes to having children can change over time, what happens when a pregnancy throws up unexpected, life-threatening challenges, and how we manage to cope (or not) with the uncertainty this presents.
I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the novel’s essence for me.
‘…We have the children that we have, not the ones we imagined we’d have, or the ones we’d have liked, and they’re the ones we end up having to contend with.’ (p. 189)
Still Born is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.
I was really impressed by this; it seemed to go beyond the usual, fairly narrow concerns of the ambivalent-mother narrative, with the depiction of Inés’s developmental issues and the relationship between Laura and Doris that pivots on Nicolás. My first Fitzcarraldo but likely not my last!
Yes, they’re a really interesting publisher with an exciting list of books! I really liked this author’s style, and the story delved into some challenging aspects of motherhood in a sensitive way, but I wasn’t quite convinced that it all came together in the end. Maybe my expectations were too high after the other Fitzcarraldos I’ve read in the past!
If you’re looking to try others, I would highly recommend Jessica Au’s haunting novella ‘Cold Enough for Snow’ and Thea Lenarduzzi’s intergenerational family memoir ‘Dandelions’, both of which I adored.
Thank you! I do like the look of Dandelions. And Jessica Au is a friend of a friend!
Amazing – well, I absolutely adored Cold Enough for Snow, so feel free to pass that on! Dandelions is wonderful, so immersive and beautifully written – I’ll be interested to see what Lenarduzzi does next…
I read this last year, drawn by the motherhood theme having decided not to have children myself, and was impressed by the way she handled it but never felt particularly emotionally invested in the characters. Your mention of too much going on might be why.
Yes, I know what you mean about the slight absence of emotional investment in the characters. I liked the lack of melodrama and the sensitive way that Nettel explored the various issues, but that slight sense of detachment may have had some downsides on emotional involvement. Also, the story didn’t quite go where I was expecting it to in the second half, especially given the conversation between Alina and her doctor as she was leaving hospital…
Excellent review, Jacqui, and it does seem that the book takes an interesting and quite nuanced look at motherhood. It’s such a knotty topic – women are still judged if they decide not to have children, which is silly. As someone who had a difficult time with my first Offspring’s birth, I can totally get the anger with the doctors. But it does sound from your review that the book would have been better it it focused more on the one story rather than trying to build in too much…
Yes, it’s good to see these issued being explored in a nuanced, sensitive way without tipping into melodrama (which could have been an issue in the hands of a different writer). Probably not a book I would recommend very widely, but an interesting read nonetheless!
Sounds like an intense book. My first thought is leave it to humans to have ambivalence about a process that to other animals is perfectly normal. On the other hand, I am so very happy that women can now choose how many children to have or if indeed they want any at all. I guess it is indeed complicated.
Yes, societal expectations have changed over the past 50 years or so, which represents some progress at least. The book touches on that briefly, highlighting some of the generational differences through Laura’s relationship with her mother.
This sounds absolutely fascinating, taking quite a different view of motherhood. A powerful, intense read I imagine, and perhaps one the reader needs to be in the right mood for.
Yes, very powerful but thankfully Nettel handles it sensitively. It’s good to see these issues being explored so thoughtfully in fiction, despite my reservations about the second half.
I have friends who have given birth to disabled children and admire so much their commitment and hard work. It comes down to luck in the end I suppose.
Having read and enjoyed your review I think I’ll pass on the book. I am interested to hear you really liked the Jessica Au. I have given it to a couple of people who were underwhelmed.
I just can’t imagine how challenging and stressful that would be. As you say, huge admiration for the parents who must face up to this…
That’s interesting about the Au, but I guess life would be very strange if we all felt the same way about everything! Maybe it was too enigmatic or elusive for your friends?
Who knows. Maybe not enough emotion?
Fitzcarraldo seem to be very good at finding thought provoking books, even if they’re not always 100% successful. This sounds an innovative look at motherhood in all its complexity. Great review, Jacqui.
Thanks, Bii. Yes, I like the idea that they’re pushing the boundaries in various different areas, and the fact that they’ve got three titles on this year’s International Booker longlist is testament their commitment to quality. Lots of other readers are fans of this book, so maybe it’s just me!
This does sound immensely powerful, and an ambitious work too. Its such a complex and hugely emotive subject. I never find Fitzcarraldo reads easy, but always compelling!
Yes, that’s certainly true of many of their books, especially Annie Ernaux’s autofictional works. In some respects, Still Born taps into similar territory, albeit from a more fictional perspective.
I liked the way it explored the issue through a number of different stories but that it never felt like an intellectual exercise. I wonder if your sense that the second half is less focused might be because, having set out these scenarios, Nettel lets them grow organically rather then schematically. i.e. with no pre-decided conclusion in mind?
Yes, I think you’re right about the absence of a predetermined conclusion. In some respects, I think I’m to blame for my slight disappointment with the second half as I wanted it to go somewhere else – somewhere more conclusive or definite. In other words, I wanted a slightly different book to that one that Nettel has written – and that’s my issue not the author’s!
I read this last month and I thought it was really good in its exploration of motherhood and mothering.
I’m glad you liked it so much. It’s an interesting insight into a complex subject – plenty for readers to think about, for sure.
This one sounds a bit Much for me, but obviously presents lots to think about in a careful and thoughtful way.
It’s a difficult subject for sure…
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Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place was the only Fitzcarraldo I had read prior to reading this, but I was absolutely swept away by this story and felt like I was reading a nonfiction narrative, especially regarding Alina’s story.
I was pleasantly surprised by how the novel handled both woman’s shift in perspective, when certain life events or circumstances changed what seemed like an intellectual stance (to have or not have children). The awakening in Laura of a form of maternal instinct towards her neighbour’s son (and the interesting side story of the brood parasite – the nest (womb-like) that she even attempted to destroy), and the harsh clinical pronouncement to Alina on the probability of their child living.
I think I came to this with low expectations and a perception of them being a less accessible, highbrow publisher, so I was surprised by how engaging I found it. Though my reading experience was very much influenced by having had a stressful, uncommunicative, relatively dramatic pregnancy/birth/post-natal experience, feelings that flooded back in reading this, in quiet awe of the stunning literary accomplishment.
I can only imagine how your own personal experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and the subsequent aftercare will have impacted your reading of the book, especially given the myriad of issues it tries to explore…And they’re all such fascinating issues to consider. In fact, any one of them would have benefited from being explored more deeply in a single novel. But I just felt that Nettel was trying to do too much here, and that’s probably why I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied and underwhelmed by the novel in the end. (Your comment about it feeling like a non-fiction narrative at times is really interesting, as I actually felt it would have worked better as a first-person narrative, like an Annie Ernaux-style autofictional work. That might have given it some of the closeness and intimacy I was hoping for.)
I loved the use of the pigeons’ experiences as a metaphor for some of the facets of parenthood in the book; but once again, there were too many different threads across Laura’s and Alina’s storylines for this to really stand out…
In the end, I guess it’s a book about various different kind’s of mothering (e.g. biological motherhood with Alina vs guardianship with Laura), and how our attitudes to motherhood can change in unexpected, surprising ways depending on personal circumstances. Looking forward to reading your review later, Claire, to see your thoughts in depth!